Source from:
September 2018 Business SCAN

The ability to successfully identify, confront and overcome problems within the workplace presents a key facet of effective organisational functioning. However, work-related problems (and their root cause) can often be unique, unfamiliar and thus difficult to navigate. Consequently, we find ourselves in a position whereby organisations are continually required to adapt and engage in new and innovate ways of thinking in an effort to find positive solutions to these “wicked problems”.

Overcome Wicked Problems

The Nature of Wicked Problems

Within organisational literature, wicked problems present ambiguous (and often ill-defined) problems which require resolutions based on political and moral reasoning as opposed to more traditional scientific and evidence-based solutions.

When attempting to identify the nature of wicked problems, there are several characteristics to consider:

  • Wicked problems cannot be easily defined
  • Wicked problems have no definitive solution
  • Solutions to wicked problems are regarded as better or worse as opposed to right or wrong
  • Solutions to wicked problems will be formulated based on judgements as opposed to evidence
  • Solutions to wicked problems cannot be undone and there is no room from trial and error
  • Wicked problems do not have an exhaustible set of solutions
  • Every wicked problem is unique
  • Every wicked problem can be regarded as symptomatic of another existing problem

Sources of Wickedness

Before we can develop strategies required to overcome wicked problems it is important we first understand their root cause.

  • Political Problem involves conflict between stakeholder goals and beliefs
  • Safety Critical Problem associated with potential; risk/loss of life
  • Temporal Problems are time pressured
  • Scalable Problems cannot be changed in regard to size or scope
  • Technological Problems which require, non-attainable or non-existent technology
  • Knowledge Problems where there is a lack of expertise and expertise regarding finding and implementing solutions
  • Physical Problems where the physical environment is constraining the solution
  • Environmental Problems where the solutions have undesirable social consequences
  • SocialProblems are of a social nature, whereby there are differing judgments/interpretations
  • Financial Problem cannot be solved with finances


Sources: Burge, J. E., & McCall, R. (2015). Diagnosing Wicked Problems. In Design Computing and Cognition’14 (pp. 313-326). Springer, Cham.; Head, B. W. (2008). Wicked problems in public policy. Public policy, 3(2), 101.; Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1974). Wicked problems. Man-made Futures, 26(1), 272-280.; Yawson, R. M. (2015). The ‘wicked problem construct ‘for organisational leadership and development. International Journal of Business and Systems Research, 9(1), 67-85.

Action Point

Consider some of the wicked problems you’ve encountered and reflect on how your organisation chose to address them.

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