Wicked Problems, A Defining Challenge

March 1st, 2011

Reverberating events

The uprisings in the Arab world are capturing worldwide attention not only because we’re witnessing history in the making, but because the changes are bound to affect us all. We live in a world that’s interconnected in ways that were hard to fathom only a few years ago. Interconnectedness is creating new challenges with social implications that traditional institutions and leaders aren’t equipped to handle.

The clashes across the Middle East and North Africa are only the latest example of unforeseen events that reverberate across regional boundaries. Before that, the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. sparked a deep global recession that affected more sectors than anything economists had seen before. As some economies began recovering during the following year, Europe’s mounting debt crisis triggered  a cascade of new problems in distant economies.

Today’s challenges, geopolitical or otherwise, are more difficult to predict, understand and handle than the kinds of problems we’ve seen until recently. As the world grows more interconnected, we become more exposed to what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called “wicked problems” which are substantially harder to define and solve than so-called “tame” problems.

Force Majeure

Wicked problems are a major force in today’s world. Many of us working on a global stage recognize that the kinds of challenges we face now are wicked by nature. Tackling them requires greater creativity and cooperation with our peers. Solving wicked problems is the defining challenge of our age.

Wicked problems are vexing because they have multiple, interrelated causes that can’t be solved by traditional tools and methods.  They are, by definition, unique and novel.  Wicked problems occur in a social context where stakeholders tend to disagree about the underlying causes thus hampering efforts to reach an effective solution.

Wicked problems affect nearly every organization and leader today, yet many leaders honed their problem-solving skills when most issues could be readily circumscribed and methodically solved.

Roger Martin observes, “There was a time when leaders shared a sense that the problems they faced could be managed through the application of well-known rules and linear logic.  Those days are gone.  Most of today’s important problems have a significant wicked component, making progress impossible if we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.”

Lean-software developer Mary Poppendieck puts it another way:  “The easy problems have been solved.  Designing systems is difficult because there is no consensus on what the problems are, let alone how to solve them.”

Wicked problems demand new ways of collaborating. Wicked problem-solvers must first seek to gain a common understanding with their counterparts. The new skills required include self-reflection, consensus-building and mobilizing others. My hunch is that relational competencies will be more critical measures of future leaders.

“Wicked problems call for us to harness all the creativity and knowledge at our disposal,” says Martin.  “Whether we choose to fight one another or work together to confront threats and opportunities, our fate and common wealth are in our hands.”



Want more?

Check out the University of Toronto Rotman School’s Rotman Magazine, WINTER 2009, “Wicked Problems” including a feature by John Camillus (“Strategy as a Wicked Problem”) and an interview with Jeff Conklin of CogNexus.  Conklin identifies six characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution
  2. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one shot operation”
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions

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  • Joycecoleman

    Steve, in my humble opinion your post needs to be an “emergency – immediate action required” notice to all who are responsible for the well-being of their organizations. It is unfortunate that our collective ability to react quickly and appropriately to challenges has not kept pace with the capacity for, and occurrence of, “wicked” problems. A capacity for “good ideas” that are a match for these “wicked” problems exists in each organization. I hope that leaders take heed and act.

    Does this sound like I am passionate on this topic? I am.

    Thank you for an elegant heads up.

  • http://www.ospreyvision.com Albert Linden

    Spot on post about a topic that needs attention. Many orgs don't have the structure or culture to solve wicked problems but I'd also lay a portion of the blame on HR processes which are looking to fill a slot rather than develop “tomorrow's leadership skills”. I'd begin by asking them how they'd go about solving wicked problems given the realities you mentioned.

  • Matala

    Good post. I remain hopeful that we're learning to collaborate, though this is clearly a transitional period. I think we have time before it comes falling down on us, but we'd better get started.

  • Nidal

    Steve, very insightful and informative as always! A critical issue indeed. It would be interesting to consider what framework would be appropriate to tackle those 'wicked problems'. I wonder if leveraging the coordination mechanism, 'Network' would be a good start. When used and managed well, the collaborative and diverse nature of a network of 'minds' can produce the 'wicked' level of innovation needed! There are many examples of creative use of networks, such as the work that Lily Pharmaceuticals do on 'Borderless Innovation – R&D' (http://www.lilly.com/news/spee

    What are the components/ characteristics of 'wicked problems'? And how can a 'Network' mechanism add the necessary dimensions to render a problem-solving model, effective and current??

  • http://www.ospreyvision.com/blog Steve Finikiotis


    Great point about bringing together the “network mechanism” in solving wicked problems. I think it's crucial in solving wicked problems.

    As far as characteristics of wicked problems, I cited Jeff Conklin's six features and here are 10 characteristics outlined by Rittel and Weber:

    1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
    2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
    3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
    4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
    5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
    6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
    7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
    8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
    9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
    10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

  • http://www.ospreyvision.com/blog Steve Finikiotis


    Thank you, Joyce, for the feedback and your appreciation of this subject.Smart organizations are recognizing the need to tackle wicked problems. If managing wicked problems is the defining challenge of our time, then creating robust problem-solving mechanisms may be the defining opportunity. Steve

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