Wicked Domains


“In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate or both.”

–    David Epstein (b. 1983), New York Times bestselling author, in his 2019 book “Range:  Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World”

A “wicked domain,” or an unkind learning environment,* is an environment where success is not the most likely outcome. It’s an environment where rules either don’t exist or aren’t followed.  A wicked domain will mess with an actuary’s head, take all the I out of AI, and expose the risk of engaging in research, practices, processes, or systems that are based on repetitive success.

The subtitle is clear — Epstein’s claim is that generalists are better suited than ever to lead in times of great change.

Not feeling the urgency yet?  Look around.  We are in a time of great change!

Technical Training vs Seeing Around Corners

While technical training and systemic approaches to learning skills make for better golfers, firefighters and chess or poker players, he points out, it does not make for better predictors.  It does not prepare us to see around corners, one of the primary requirements for effective strategic leadership.

Seeing around corners is steeped in “What if?” questions.  “What if the market goes to crap?”  “What if a competitor drops their price by 37%?”

Seeing around corners isn’t about certainty, either.  It’s about preparedness.  An example:  In about 2009-ish, my team prepared a strategic plan for the CEO of the publicly-traded company for which we worked.  It was pretty danged good, by all accounts.  In the Friday morning meeting, the CEO asked me, “Heston, where could this all go squirrely?  What if something really weird happens?  What would have to happen for this to become an awful plan overnight?”

“The Client would have to exit their North American business,” I replied, “and we have no reason to think that happens this year, if ever.”  That was Friday morning.  Sunday night the client exited their North American operations amid the financial crisis.  Effective immediately.  Doh!

That right there is a wicked domain for which technical training provided no benefit.  If we’d have only been technically trained, we’d have just laid off about 40 people.  The team, though, had been able to see around the corner enough to know that “immediately” had to be considered in the context of regulatory and operational realities that gave us at least five months to adapt and adjust.  About 25 jobs were saved because the plan was built with off-ramps and flexibility to adjust when the domain got wicked.

The Wrong Lessons vs Instincts and Intuition

Epstein points out that “in the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.”  It’s another take on data as the end-all, be-all in modern business.

If we choose to be completely subservient to the data, policies, and processes that are in place — ignoring the market’s voice and sticking to the book — we might as well be flying blind.

Labels and Resumes

Labels tell us:  She’s a finance person.  He’s a sales guy.  We’re a product team.  On paper, she looks like a marketer.  That is the resume of a general manager!  Wow!  Look at all that experience in widgets — they’re clearly a widget person.

It’s easier than ever to label people and teams, and it’s more dangerous than ever, too.

Especially when we consider the wickedness of the domain.  “There’s no way grocery shopping goes predominantly online!”  “There’s no way we won’t be able to meet with our clients!” “There’s no way they cancel that trade show!”  “There’s no way…”

Until there is.

What happens to the “rules” then?  As one of the greasers says before the big race in the movie Grease, “The rules are there ain’t no rules.” That’s the domain we find ourselves in today.

And, in this wicked domain, I’ll follow the generalist, thank you!  Especially the one with access to a few specialists to make sure they help craft answers to as many really good “What if…” questions as the team can dream up.


*as defined by psychologist Robin Hogarth


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