Strategy as a Wicked Problem: Citibank

Companies today face a vast array of difficulties and challenges. Most of these challenges can be addressed and remedied with well-established processes; however, some fall into a separate category known as WICKED PROBLEMS [1]. WICKED PROBLEMS are identified by John Camillus as problems that “[have] innumerable causes, [are] tough to describe and [do not] have a right answer [1].” WICKED PROBLEMS involve stakeholders with different values and priorities, making it difficult for managers to clearly identify the root cause of a particular problem. Once a company identifies it is faced with a WICKED PROBLEM, it must invent creative methods to deal with the dilemma as no preexisting solution is available. This predicament is primarily due to the fact that WICKED PROBLEMS, by their definition, have no historical precedent for which to benchmark appropriate managerial decision making.
Citibank is currently facing WICKED PROBLEMS; a variety of complex and intertwined reasons, involving various groups of stakeholders (to include numerous government agencies). Each party possesses a distinct set of priorities related to future industry regulation, viability, operations and profitability. The source of these troubling issues is not easily identified as they revolve around a complex network of occurrences: the collapse of the real estate industry, liberal lending practices, stringent government regulations and lax policies are a few of such underlying issues. During the global financial crisis in 2008-09, the “too big to fail” Citibank received more than $50 billion via taxpayer money in the form of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The goal was to avoid a financial meltdown and strengthen the banks so that they can lend which in turn will revive the economy and reduce the high unemployment rate. However, because of the stricter regulations and lending practices, lending to businesses has plunged resulting in credit crunch [3]. On the contrary, to reduce cost, Citibank exercised massive lay-offs which further deteriorated its public image [4]. Another strategy adopted to reduce operational cost which ultimately had serious security consequences was outsourcing the information technology and support center tasks to India. Fraud incident were recorded where more than $350,000 from Citibank account holders in New York were stolen [6]. To make matter worse, there was a security leak of more than 600,000 social security errors [7]. Within the last few years, the share price of Citibank has plummeted from $37 to $4 resulting in an uproar from shareholders. If Citibank were to actively address these issues related to WICKED PROBLEM(S), the analysis would likely reveal a network of complex and interconnected root causes. For example, in order reduce massive losses from its credit card business; Citibank allegedly closed a limited number of co-branded MasterCard accounts including Shell, Citgo, ExxonMobil and Phillips 66-Conoco oil partner cards [2]. The arbitrary credit card closing of credit cards led to dissatisfied customers and potential lawsuits. If the problems plaguing the Citibank were thoroughly reviewed, one would have great difficulty in identifying which particular problem should be the immediate focus of attention. In order to attack WICKED PROBLEMS, it is important to use multiple strategies in order to bring the root cause (or more likely causes) to light.
There are frameworks and guidelines available to identify WICKED PROBLEMS but not clearly tame them with quantified results. There is a need to formulate multiple variable (constraints) stochastic optimization methodology to obtain the best possible strategy with the various interrelated constraints. In case of Citibank some of the considerations will be repayment of TARP funds, lending practices, foreclosure processes, hiring and layoff, restructuring and new business opportunities in the emerging markets. Last year, Citibank separated into two businesses, Citicorp and Citi Holdings, to optimize the company's global businesses for future profitable growth and opportunities [8]. Even though many of the corporate strategies may not address all segments of the WICKED PROBLEM, the change in policies may provide the company with valuable insight in order to identify other opportunities to contest. A well defined mission statement which clearly communicates the Citibank’s ethos, core competencies, growth projections and future aspirations will help guide managers and their decision making when tackling such WICKED PROBLEMS. It is extremely important to involve stakeholders, document opinions, and communicate during strategy formulations. In case of Citibank the various stakeholders will comprise of the government, shareholders, customers and its own employees. The implementation of new strategies developed to combat WICKED PROBLEMS may be extremely costly. The development of pilot programs and scenario analysis may be the best way to control the implementation of a particular solution for such issues. Companies faced with a WICKED PROBLEM need remember that their focus should not lie on “fixing” the predicament with a single strategy. The goal is to grasp a greater understanding of the problem(s) which come from multitude of strategies. Some of these strategies may indeed fail, thus providing additional insight into the WICKED PROBLEM’S solution.

1. “Strategy as a WICKED Problem”, John C. Camillus, Harvard Business Review, May 2008
2. “Citibank Cancels Credit Cards with Little Warning”, Accessed: 14-Nov-2010.
3. “Lending Falls at Epic Pace”, Michael R. Crittenden, Marshall Eckblad, The Wall Street Journal, 24-Feb-2010.
4. “Citigroup's Layoffs Could Reach 24,000 This Year”, Accessed: 14-Nov-2010.
5. “Citi's Statement on TARP Repayment”
6. “Citibank call centre fraud reveals Indian data protection deficit”, Computer Fraud and Security, Vol. 2005, Issue: 4-Apr-2005. pp. 3.
7. “Citibank Exposes 600,000 SSNs.” Information Management (15352897), v. 44 issue 3, 2010, p. 10-10.
8. “Citi to Reorganize into Two Operating Units to Maximize Value of Core Franchise”, Citigroup Inc. Press Release, 16-Jan-2009.

Source: Deshpande A., Evans A., Roberts M., Citibank’s Wicked Problems, White Paper.


Photons and Electrons said...

Very interesting Amit. I think we are living in an era of "Wicked Problems". Unfortunately, many of USA's problems are caused by "Wicked Politicians"...



Amit Deshpande said...

Thanks Dave. I agree with your politician statement. Even after pouring billions of dollars, the situation has not improved.

Janice Clements said...

It's always common to businesses to face challenges and they should just deal with them. In the end, they can be successful with their business goals.

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