Plugging the “ingenuity gap”

A few years ago, there was a growing buzz about the “ingenuity gap.” The question posed by author Thomas Homer-Dixon was whether the world’s problems have outstripped our ability as humans to address them. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) brings new urgency to the issue: is letting machines handle them the only way we can attack big problems?

Mind the Gap

What’s not in doubt is the rise of deeply challenging issues. What’s also not in question is the simple fact that these kinds of problems won’t be solved by a solo genius or even a small group of gifted people. They’re what we sometimes call “wicked problems” – where even the nature of the problem is unclear, and the level of collaboration needed is very high. So does that mean that there is in fact an ingenuity gap – or is there something else at work?

Ingenuity Gap and the Rise of “Wicked Problems”

One way to think about wicked problems is to describe them with a matrix like the one below, in which those two requirements (problem definition and collaboration) are seen as existing along a spectrum.

(credit: Alford, J., & Head, B. W. (2017). Wicked and less wicked problems: A typology and a contingency framework. Policy and Society, 36(3), 397–413.)

Ingenuity Gap and AI

Homer-Dixon’s definition of ingenuity is that it is the ability to generate ideas for solving problems. We’ve all witnessed the ability of AI to generate almost anything, from recipes to academic papers. To some extent, the vertical axis of the model is embedded in AI, as it uses its understanding of the problem (what to have for dinner, the existing knowledge base of the paper topic) to come up with multiple, even infinite, “solutions” to the prompt it’s given. As it learns, its solutions become better. So we could say that AI is the answer to the ingenuity gap – we now have tools to generate ideas far beyond what some of us envisioned when the book was written in 2002. And those ideas are getting better and better every day.

However, AI is utterly useless when it comes to the horizontal axis: collaboration. The ability to come up with ideas or potential solutions has almost nothing to do with whether of then any are implemented (much less the right ones). To tackle the implementation barrier we have to contend with human nature: people’s and organizations’ self-interest, biases, and just plain ill-will. Agile leadership gives us the ability to bring people together across divides to address complex challenges, even wicked problems. It recognizes that we (not just the AI model) will also learn: by experimenting, trying small scale prototypes, and continually making adjustments as we work together. It can do what no machine will ever be able to do.

Plug the Gap!

The Agile Strategy Lab can help you learn and use these critical skills. Sign up for one of our upcoming trainings or contact us to get customized help with your organization’s wicked (or not-so-wicked) challenge. We’re here to plug the ingenuity gap.