Wicked Problems


“Looking for a manager. Please submit your CV if you have experience juggling management in the following areas: change, digital transformation, Industry 4.0, inclusivity, cultural diversity, globalization, personalization, innovation, labour shortage, sustainable development, social responsibility, and political disruption. Experience in management during a global pandemic a huge plus. Salary: Not enough. Vacation: Not much. Phone: Provided.”

Sounds tempting, no? I can already hear the sound of crickets coming from the HR office.

The reality of this is brutal. More than ever, the work managers do today is extremely complex. Which means a whole lot of managers end up experiencing psychological distress, cognitive overload, and burnout.

While researching models to help our management clients (and myself!) navigate the troubled waters of modern management, I came across an idea that caught my eye and really puts a finger on the challenges we face today: Wicked Problems.


“Wicked Problems” is an idea that’s been spoken about by design philosophers since the 60s. They are “a class of social problems that are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values… where proposed ‘solutions’ often turn out to be worse than the symptoms” (Churchman, 1967). 

“Wicked,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “morally very bad; evil; disgustingly unpleasant.” But that’s not exactly it in this case. It’s much deeper and more meaningful than simply how evil the challenges are that managers must face.

Whether it’s one of the challenges I listed above or any others we may face, this is precisely the kind of thing that keeps you on your toes during the day and lying awake at night. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable, insecure, and filled with doubt. You can never find just the right solution—you’re always missing key information and going against your own intuition.

It feels like the challenge is smarter than you are. It’s toxic. Machiavellian, even. And as you begin to find your way and uncover solutions, suddenly the problem changes shape, paralyzes your ability to make decisions, drives you mad. Sometimes it’s downright bad for your health.

Taming your Wicked Problems

Churchman’s definition of Wicked Problems implies that this type of challenge can never really be solved—which makes it dangerous for you to tackle. The good news? Although it can’t be solved, it can be tamed.

For most of the managers I know (and that probably includes you), taming this kind of challenge doesn’t come naturally. In fact, it probably goes against everything you’ve been taught. The mathematical approach we learn in school says you should tackle and analyze the challenge in a linear way, like in the chart below:

This traditional approach to problem solving is, in principle, well structured. With enough effort and a clear methodology, you will at some point find a solution. Whether that solution is a satisfying one or not is another question, but at least you’ll have your answer.

 However, the process for resolving a Wicked Problem looks more like this:

In this context, your challenge (let’s say it’s digital transformation) will continually redefine itself and change shape as you seek to find a solution. Maybe the environment is constantly evolving, or employees aren’t reacting as expected, or upper management keeps changing priorities…

In order to tame the challenge, you must first and foremost accept that:

  •   You will spend more time trying to understand the problem than finding a solution
  •   You will probably never completely understand the problem before finding and testing a solution
  •   Every challenge is new and unique
  •   You need to stop as soon as you feel a solution is “good enough”
  •   The solution will be neither true nor false
  •   The solution will come with an infinite number of alternatives

In other words, you have to start by coming to terms with the Wickedness—the chaos—of the challenge itself.

In your own life

It is difficult, as a manager, to make decisions in such a context of great uncertainty. You’ll have to understand a large number of variables, move forward in fear and adversity, accept mistakes, and—most of all—accept that a challenge may be badly defined from the start.

Taming my own Wicked Problems has had a significant impact on my life and my management style. The simple act of understanding and accepting their existence has lowered my anxiety at work considerably. Ever since, I have been outlining key strategies to resolve issues at work—but all without trying to plan and control every detail. I am able to accept that the challenge in question will evolve, change shape, and surprise me. This means I need to make smaller decisions quickly and gradually, and ensure I have an exit strategy should they turn out not to work. I test, eliminate, implement, reformulate the challenge, and start over. And I stop when the solution is good enough

All this to say: Changing your perspective when faced with a challenge can have a significant impact on you as a manager. Don’t let Wickedness get the upper hand when it comes to you, your vision, or your health.


Photo credit : Marianne Bos / Unsplash


Sources :

Churchman, W. (1967) Wicked Problems. Management Science, vol. 14, n°4, p. B-141.

Conklin, J. (2001) Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, p. 25.

Arnaud Montpetit
Vice-President, Strategy