Wicked Problems for Today’s Leaders


My wife and I wanted to get a motion detector in our backyard. We had a backlight on the house already. The house was a new construction. The motion detector would be additional security. We estimated the price to be under $200.

When the electrician arrived, he talked with us about our needs and did a thorough inspection of the home. He came back with an estimate of over $600. He rationalized this price due to the configuration of our home and the difficulty of wiring this fixture.

My wife and I both wanted this motion detector. However, we were unwilling to pay the price for this addition. Thus, we needed to redefined the problem. We wanted this motion detector as extra security for the home. We asked the electrician what it would cost to change out the light fixture. He mentioned less than $80. The motion detector was about $50. By redefining or refocusing the problem, we were able to carryout a better solution. 

In search of more lucrative markets, today’s companies are looking for more opportunities across the globe. The United States is a land where dreams come true. Individuals from across the globe come to this country for possible opportunities. Yet, companies fail every day in the marketplace.

According to one study, the failure rate for new startups is about 46%. Botch understanding of your business competencies and market opportunities may put to be fatal. On the contrary, businesses that provide value to customers by solving their pressing problems are rewarded.

By solving someone’s challenging problems, individuals are compensated very well. Thus, solving ‘wicked problems’ could yield greater rewards.  In this session, we will discuss the concepts of wicked problems and introduces how organizations can solve them with effective leaders who provide a burst of innovative thinking.

Wicked problems are not a simple undertaking. In 1973, design theorists, Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, coined the term “wicked problem” in reference to complicated problems. A wicked problem can be defined as “one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem.

Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented.” Wicked problems in cases where constant change or unprecedented challenges. Wicked problems are disruptive to traditional thinking generating traits of confusion, discord, and dysfunction.[1]

These wicked problems have the following characteristics: (1) A lack of definitive formulation; (2) No predetermined rule that determines when a solution has been found; (3) Lack of immediate and ultimate tests of solutions; (4) Lack of criteria that indicate all solutions have been identified; and (5) The uniqueness of every wicked problem.[2] Some examples of today’s wicked problems in our time include poverty, aging, nuclear weapons, world hunger, poverty, race relations, and health issues like cancer. Even with the best intentions, wicked problems may take decades or centuries to solve.

Critical Video

The changing world needs more individuals (i.e., leaders) who can solve wicked problems. Ian Palmer, Richard Dunford, and David Buchanan, authors of Managing Organizational Change, suggest that it is critical that managers know how to facilitate change and tailor creative approaches to fit the different context. “Whatever the explanation, organizations are clearly faced with a variety of pressures to change, from different directions.”[3]  Successful companies understand that solving problems provide them immediate rewards.

Stephen Spinelli Jr. and Robert Adams, authors of New Venture Creation, further argue that the market will be handsomely rewarded: “At the heart of the process is an opportunity. Successful entrepreneurs and investors know that a good idea is not necessarily a good opportunity… In short, the greater the growth, size, durability, and robustness of the gross and net margins and free cash flow, the greater the opportunity.” Thus, wicked problems are market opportunities.

However, some people are not interested in solving the problem, but making such their rationale of why the problem cannot be solved. Given this internal resistance, effective leadership must be infused into the problem to tackle wicked problems. In this case, this situation calls for tagging the manager out of the wrestling ring with a wicked problem and bringing in a fresh opponent, an authentic leader.

Dr. Richard Daft, leadership, argues about the importance of utilizing creative people in organizations: “Leaders of today’s organizations have reasons to encourage creativity. They need employees to continually be contributing ideas in order to respond to challenges.”[4] Figuring out how to solve wicked problems is not easy (or everyone would be solving them). Management guru, Cara G. Parker, suggests the following steps to solve wicked problems:

  1. Solve the right problem.
  2. Pinpoint the stakeholders.
  3. Analyze the issues.
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions.
  5. Test the preferred solution.

In summary, today’s companies are looking for market opportunities. Solving wicked problems are opportunities that carry a maximum reward. Yet, traditional thinking will not solve wicked problems in general.

In this brief conversation,  I’ve demonstrated that there is value in the marketplace for solving wicked problems. In fact, the most unsolvable problems can be overcome with effective leaders who think outside of the box with innovative thinking. Yet, most organizations have individuals who are roadblocks in solving problems outside of the traditional methods. Failure to overcome resistance and implement innovative thinking to wicked problems can be fatal. Pray that it is not too late.

Please share your personal experience with the above subject.

© 2018 by Dr. Daryl D. Green


[1]“Strategy as a Wicked Problem” by John Camillus

[2] “‘Wicked’Problems: What are they, and why are they of interest to NNSI Researchers?” by Katherine Cooper

[3] Managing Organizational Change by Ian Palmer, Richard Dunford, and David Buchanan

[4] Leadership by Richard Daft

[5]Solve your Wicked Problems in 5 Steps!” by Cara G. Parker



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