A Wicked Idea for Solving Wicked Problems

Lisa Hrabluk and Christine Comeau, founders of Wicked Ideas. (Image: Michael Hawkins)

A New Brunswick startup wants to change the way governments, institutions, businesses and organizations deal with complex issues. 

Wicked Ideas is a knowledge consultancy company that helps clients navigate complex issues by getting them to go “deep beneath the surface of existing challenges to analyze how underlying issues intertwine and to identify where opposing positions connect.”

The company was founded 2011 by Lisa Hrabluk, an award-winning journalist who has spent her 20-year career covering natural resource, indigenous and business issues. She set out to create a solutions-based journalism company after experiencing frustration with how big issues were being covered. She believed citizens weren’t being provided the proper context and information on stories that involved big, often complicated topics. 

“So I set to build out a new type of journalism company,” Hrabluk says. “While that stayed in the back of my head, I began to realize what I was really talking about was a whole new way of understanding relationships in a world where we are all connected now by technology and how that is changing how we do business, how we learn, and all sorts of things.”

Hrabluk and her chief operating officer Christine Comeau saw an opportunity to help institutions, businesses and organizations navigate this new way of handling public affairs. In 2015, the company officially pivoted and became a consultancy firm.

“Throughout my career over the past two decades as a journalist, I covered a lot of protests. I covered a lot of disagreements. I covered a lot of business deals that have gone south,” Hrabluk says. “I covered a lot of regulatory hearings that ended horribly and I covered a lot of legislative sessions that accomplished nothing because they were deadlocked.”

Hrabluk explains that many governments, businesses and organizations routinely are unable to foster the right relationships with their stakeholders and their communities. With so many different groups to please, all with a different set of concerns, working with everyone to find a way forward can often seem like an impossible task. 

“I think what we’ve become very good at as a society is  we know what we don’t like . . . and we have become really good at building coalitions and bringing together people to fight what we don’t like,” Hrabluk says.

“What we’re actually not very good at is building coalitions to move past an argument to find a way forward. What we haven’t done is figure out how to build those coalitions that help us move past those complex problems into a new solution. That is what Wicked Ideas does.”

Wicked Ideas works with clients in the public and private sectors. The company specializes in resource development, indigenous reconciliation and related issues, and relieving general institutional inertia. They do this through special workshops and strategic consultation services which are based on a process Hrabluk has created.

“I developed a process, an interesting piece of social innovation, that at its core is about identifying how you build what I call a ‘shared value proposition.’ It’s about taking what you want to accomplish and framing it [differently],” Hrabluk says.

“We always explain ourselves from a position of self-interest, and what we do is help you reframe it so you’re saying it from more of a community interest, to be able to then identify people with whom you have this shared value proposition. You can help them and they can help you. This is how you’re going to build these coalitions of trust and understanding.”

Wicked Ideas teaches clients this process, which Hrabluk says is a way to work with stakeholders to solve potentially damaging and controversial issues before they even arise. 

“It’s a different form of risk-management, because we are going to help you build coalitions anchored in hope and moving forward, and we’re going to do that before you’re in trouble. So when challenges come at you, there are some people who got your back,” Hrabluk says.

“That’s what we help you figure out so you can continue to move towards the goals you have set for yourselves that are aligned with [those of] the community.”

So far, Wicked Ideas has worked with over a dozen clients across New Brunswick, in Ontario and Texas. One of the company’s most recent projects was assisting New Brunswick’s Commission on Hydraulic Fracturing with the creation of their report, which was released in February.

“In seven months what we were able to do was design a stakeholder engagement process for them. I spoke with over 200 people but did not hold any public forums where they sat in a church hall and people came,” Hrabluk says.

“[Because] I don’t think that’s effective at all, that to me is political theatre. You don’t have real conversations there. But you can have authentic conversations with people around a table.”

The report essentially gave hydraulic fracturing a “yellow light,” presenting recommendations that should be met if the practice were to move forward in the province. The report was generally well received among industry, environmental and indigenous leaders as a way to move forward on the issue.

“Considering where the fracking file had sat prior to the naming that commission, that I think is a great success,” says Hrabluk.

With the rise of technology, public affairs are now truly happening in public. Business decisions, whether they are being undertaken by government actors or private firms, can no longer be conceived and completed entirely behind closed doors. A business will face a huge public backlash if it simply marches into a community and announces a huge project without properly consulting relevant stakeholders beforehand. An improved focus on building relationships with stakeholders, and on understanding the issues and concerns of communities, will make it easier for businesses to move forward on projects and to solve complex problems when they happen.

“You need to now develop relationships with your community the same way you once coveted and nurtured relationships with senior civil servants, cabinet ministers and political leaders,” says Hrabluk. “You need to nurture those relationships at the street level.”

Going forward, Hrabluk would like to see Wicked Ideas make a name for itself as the go-to company for helping groups do just that.

“We want to be Ghostbusters,” she says. “We want to be the first thing you think of when you have to deal with a big issue and you want to do it right and you want to build a strong relationship with the community that you serve. We want to be the first person you call.”