Managing wicked problems: a primer

Problem structuring and (non-)linear management methods to address wicked problems in business and development

linear managementWhat is linear management?      Linear management is often contrasted with the non-linear, reiterative forms of management used to address wicked problems. Linear management can be applied to solve tame, straightforward problems. In the linear approach the problem is first defined and then analysed. This involves identifying and describing the causes of the problem, their effects, and the sequence in which the effects are produced. The term “linear” refers to the main, non-re-iterative steps just mentioned, including the hypothesis and verification of linkages between causes and effects. Once these are known it is possible to formulate a strategy to eliminate or minimize the problem by effecting a change in its causes. The implementation of the strategy is then assessed, as well as the effects it has on the occurrence of the problem, because that is why one wants to go through all this trouble in the first place.

Wicked problems need non-linear management     Standard linear management fails to address the main reasons why problems can be wicked: (1) the problem may be hard to define; (2) causes and effects may be difficult to determine; and, as a result, (3) linkages between causes and effects may be unknown or systemic. Therefore, strategynon-linear management development becomes very tricky. To reduce the risks, it makes sense to allow for making adjustments along the way (“muddling through”). Hopefully these adjustments can be informed by emerging or converging patterns in the cause-effect dynamics. Typically, this requires going back a few steps (a re-iteration) in the planning process to collect new data and hypothesize new links between causes and effects. An alternative approach is to bring stakeholders and experts together in the hope they will be able to reach a consensus. This may be difficult as a result of diverging expectations and values. It seems wise to emphasize, though, that non-linear management is a re-iterative modification or expansion of linear management, really, not its complete abandonment. What I mean is that the basic linear structure of management is maintained, no matter how wicked the problem may be. I am sure this will come as a relief to some of the more die-hard, linear problem solvers.

A typology of problems     Mascarenhas (2011, p. 237) combines wicked problem definitions of Perrow (1984), Ackoff (1974), Senge (1990), and Horn (1991) to draw up a 2 x 2 x 2 matrix of problems (see image below) and a corresponding typology of managerial strategies to deal with them. It is useful to note that the complexity in the bottom four problem types “arises primarily from unknown causes of the problem erupting over time.” Perrow was the first to make the distinction between the 4 types of effect sequences: fixed, probable, estimable, and emergent. Messes are problems that cannot be solved in isolation from one another (Ackoff). This is so, because “the leverage lies in interactions that cannot be seen from looking only at the piece you are holding” (Senge). When messes enter the socio-political-cultural domain of conflicting interests and multiple stakeholders with different goals, they become “social messes” (Horn).typology of problems

Examples of wicked problems     Mascarenhas (2011, p. 237) lists a large number of problems for each problem type.  Messes include: forest fires, deforestation, tsunami, flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides and erosion, energy crisis, alternative fuels, and the drinking water crisis. Examples of social messes are: religious bigotry fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, corporate greed, corporate fraud, corporate bankruptcy, home mortgage crisis, monetary crisis, financial market crisis, and Wall Street meltdown.  Complex messes are: global carbon emissions, global climate change, polar arctic drift, nuclear disasters, chronic/incurable disease, trade embargoes, (global) hunger & disease, global price collusions, global trade inequities, and global financial risk. Complex social messes include: (global) terrorism, (global) inequality, (global) poverty, (global) injustices, (global) turbulence, global nuclear threats, (global) wars, (global) ecological damage, (global) instability, and (global) revolution.

Problem structuring methods     Problem structuring methods (PSMs) have been developed to serve as decision support tools for structuring wicked/unstructured problems. According to Mingers and Rosenhead (2002), PSMs address problems involving conflicting interests of multiple actors by (a) presenting a model of the problematic situation with a view to compare several alternative perspectives; and (b) enabling a group to focus on a particular issue in order to agree on action that will at least partially resolve it. PSMs include: (1) strategic options development and analysis (SODA); (2) soft systems methodology (SSM, Checkland); (3) strategic choice approach (SCA); (4) robustness analysis; (5) drama theory; (6) critical systems heuristics (CSH, Ulrich); (7) interactive planning and idealized design (Ackoff); (8) the TOWS matrix (Weihrich); (9) scenario planning (Schoemaker); (10) the social-technical systems approach; (11) viable systems model (VSM, Stafford Beer); (12) system dynamics (SD, example); (13) decision conferencing; (14) morphological analysis (GMA, Ritchey); (15) rapid appraisal of agricultural knowledge systems (RAAKS, Engel and Salomon); (16) mess mapping (Horn); (17) dialogue mapping (Conklin); (18) concept mapping* (Trochim & Kane); (19) multimethodological approaches; and, last but not least (20) the systems approach (Churchman). This list is not exhaustive and more methods continue to be developed, see also Williams & Hummelbrunner (2010) below. Some of the listed methods have been dealt with in previous posts to this blog (click on the links, e.g. SODASSM, VSM), others will follow.

* Concept mapping of the type developed by Trochim & Kane is different from the concept mapping I do in almost every post to this blog!
This post was produced using concept mapping and structured writing (see earlier posts). It is mostly based on the following two publications:

An excellent overview of problem structuring methods can be found in:


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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One Response to Managing wicked problems: a primer

  1. Pingback: Managing #wicked problems: a primer | CSL4D | Appreciating Systems

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