Resolving wicked problems: rules of the game

Broad guidelines for problem-resolution processes derived from first principles

The reason for this post…      is to see to what extent one can understand common rules for resolving wicked business problems as directly related to the nature of the problems they help to resolve, in other words: to show how the problem-resolution process of wicked problems follows from their characteristics. Some of the more common recommendations or best practices that cannot be so derived will also be discussed in relation to the same general framework.

Resolving wicked problems - rules of the game

Skilled incompetence & analysis paralysis      For a wicked problem to be dealt with correctly, the first step is to acknowledge that a problem is indeed wicked and serious. Logical as this may sound, managers tend to easily and routinely fall back in a pattern of systematic denial of the complex dynamics of wicked problems, a phenomenon that Chris Argyris (1993) called “skilled incompetence,” leading to a situation of “analysis paralysis.” For a variety of reasons (e.g. the skilful avoidance of conflict), they will hammer away at the problem with their linear, analytical tools of the trade, unable to clarify the situation and therefore unable to decide to any effective action.

How can we recognize wicked problems?      Wicked problems differ from ordinary ones by their resistance to understanding and control by the “problem owner” and the apparent impossibility to formulate a single, right answer. This is so since the wicked problem is caused by complex, tangled causes related to multiple stakeholders having divergent perspectives, i.e. apparently incompatible values, priorities, and opinions. As a result, the conventional, linear approach of problem definition, hypotheses formulation, data collection and analysis, hypothesis verification or falsification, and drawing critical inferences for strategy formulation will not be very helpful.

The problem space     The seventh property of wicked problems distinguished by Rittel and Webber (1973) is that “every wicked problem is essentially unique.” This means that it has no precedent and “part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply.” So instead of trying to deal with a (definite) problem (too early), it is more sagacious to delimit a problem domain and work on it in a so-called problem space. The same applies of course to the solution space: there, too, it is important to avoid clamping down on alternative solutions in too early a stage.

Communication and ownership…     are of the greatest importance, since it is the multiplicity (and sometimes duplicity ;-)) of stakeholders that thwarts a clear, common understanding of the wicked problem at hand. For real ownership by the entire group of stakeholders it is necessary that this communication goes both ways. There is no other way to increase the likelihood of tapping into the tacit knowledge of the stakeholders that may hold the key to untangling the wicked problem. And without a culture that actively and seriously promotes co-ownership, (some) stakeholders will not be able to participate as fully as they should.

Group exploration…     is critical to resolving wicked problems. Its main goal is to explore the problem and solution domains with all hands on deck. It also serves the objectives of strengthening communication and a sense of ownership. It is important for participants to be able to go back and forth between problems and solutions (Conklin, 2006) without losing each other’s full attention, all the while maintaining maximum transparency. Rosenhead (1996) argues strongly that representing problem complexity graphically is an effective method for ensuring the fullest possible participation. Such a graphical representation (e.g. a rich picture) then becomes a battlefield for thrashing out the diverging values, priorities, opinions, problem formulations and solutions.

Action-focused and opportunity-driven    Methods must be opportunity-driven because that’s the only way to drive the process, which is aimed at uncovering viable opportunities by resolving wicked problems. One such method is action-oriented scenario analysis. The various problem structuring methods that have been developed since the 1980s differ mostly in the way they enable groups to develop or compare concrete alternatives. In many cases dedicated software was developed to allow good graphical representation of the process, thus spawning business opportunities for exploiting the intellectual property associated with the various methods.

The problem owner’s identity as guide     In the case of corporations, but also other response (or problem) owners grappling with wicked problems as a strategic issue, it makes sense to go back to their identity to provide direction and focus attention on opportunities and threats (Camillus, 2008). An identity consists of: (1) values: what is fundamentally important to the company? (2) competencies: what does the company do better than others do? and (3) aspirations: how does the company envision and measure success? The values part is particularly interesting, because that’s where multiple stakeholders should find common ground, before they will be able to reach a consensus on the strategy to be followed.
This post is one of several on wicked problems. It was produced using concept mapping and structured writing (see earlier posts).


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
This entry was posted in Wicked problems. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Resolving wicked problems: rules of the game

  1. Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom Ritchey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s