Managing a Future Filled with Wicked Problems
Disruptive business models and wicked problems have de-linked the future from the past, making traditional
strategic planning systems inadequate.
are the two fundamental challenges COMPLEXITY AND UNCERTAINTY that stand between modern managers and the economic viability of their organizations. Many of the techniques that managers employ to deal with uncertainty and risk — such as contingency planning and five-forces analyses — focus on coping with and limiting volatility. But uncertainty comes in different forms than simple volatility. In many cases, entirely different alternative futures exist, and they are clouded by ambiguity. When these extreme variations of uncertainty and complexity interact, ‘wickedness’ results.
UC Berkeley professors of Design and Urban Planning Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber first defined wicked problems in 1973, identifying ten characteristics of these problems. Recognizing that many of these characteristics were the same ones being faced by my clients and executive students, I wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2008, called “Strategy as a Wicked Problem.” In the ensuing years I have continued to work on strategic wicked problems with business leaders worldwide, and based on my experience, I have whittled the ten criteria down to a more manageable five that are particularly pertinent to the realm of organizational strategy. The five essential characteristics of wicked problems that render traditional problem-solving approaches impotent in this arena are:
1. The perceived ‘problem’ is difficult to define, and substan
tially without precedent. 2. There are multiple, significant stakeholders with conflicting values and priorities who are affected by the perceived problem and responses to it. 3. There are many apparent causes of the perceived problem,
and they are inextricably tangled. 4. It is not possible to be sure when you have the correct or best
solution; there is no ‘stopping’ rule. 5. The understanding of what the problem is changes when re
viewed in the context of alternative proposed solutions.
Problems possessing these characteristics cannot be solved by traditional methods, because traditional methods require a clear and accepted problem definition. In this article I will explore one of the tools that modern organizations can embrace