What is a Wicked Problem in Organizational Leadership?

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If you’re studying (or planning to study) the field of organizational leadership, you’re sure to come across the concept of “wicked problems”, or problems that have no straightforward solution. So what is a "Wicked Problem?" In the ever-evolving business world, organizational leaders are often required to solve problems that they have never encountered or even thought about previously. Some of these roadblocks may be “tame problems,” or problems that can be challenging but are ultimately solvable. When faced with a tame problem, a leader can rely on precedents and processes to arrive at a solution. A wicked problem, on the other hand, has no clear answer and no “stopping point,” i.e. a point at which the problem is totally resolved.[i]

Examples of wicked problems you are already familiar with include crime, social injustice, natural disasters, and other seemingly uncontrollable issues. Society can work to lessen the effects of these problems, but there are no easy answers and no foreseeable point at which they will be completely fixed.

So how do wicked problems relate to organizational leadership?

As an organizational leader, you’ll likely encounter problems from time to time that raise questions rather than illuminate ready solutions. One example might be employee wellness. The sedentary life of the typical office worker, coupled with economic or work/life balance issues that may prevent employees from joining a gym and choosing a healthy diet, is a concern for many large organizations; however, there is no single initiative that a 1,000-person company can take to solve this issue. Cost and practicality get in the way of a total, perfect solution.

Wicked problems can be approached by engaging in dialogue, considering diverse viewpoints, and identifying areas where there is room for change and improvement. This process is far from automatic and may seem like a vague or passive approach. In reality, solving a wicked problem requires strong leadership, creativity, and collaborative thinking.[ii]

Who are some leaders in the field of organizational leadership?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the top organizational leaders today are notable for their social and philanthropic contributions in addition to their business acumen. Leaders like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are renowned for their work to reduce the impact of wicked problems like homelessness, disease, and lack of educational opportunities worldwide. Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Anne Mulcahy of Xerox are two other impressive leaders who, when faced with unprecedented business challenges, led their companies to success.[iii]

So what kinds of problems might you encounter in your potential future career as an organizational leader? The unique challenges you might face are pretty much impossible to predict, but you could probably expect to encounter a wicked problem or two during times of company change, restructuring, and growth. For strategic leaders, these problems present opportunities to seek innovation, empower your colleagues and employees, and make a positive difference in your organization. 

[i]dur.ac.uk/resources/public.health/northeast2012/masterclass2/Keith_Grint_Wicked_Problems_Clumsy_Solutions_presentation1.pdf  [ii] partners4change.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/wicked-problems.pdf  [iii] forbes.com/sites/davidkwilliams/2012/07/24/top-10-list-the-greatest-living-business-leaders-today/