Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bringing "wicked problems" outside the ivory tower

Many managers, friends and stakeholders often ask me: you write much about wicked problems such as food insecurity, land degradation, climate change... but what are these "wicked problems" exactly? Are problems related to sustainability that is NOT wicked? And also, don't you believe that by talking about these wicked problems, you simply make problems more complex that what they are?

Here are my tentative answers to these fair questions. 

First, I propose that managers can realize if they are facing a wicked problem - and act accordingly - by asking themselves three questions:

  1. Do your stakeholders have always (or for a very long period of time, let’s say 10 years) the same needs/requests/reasons to pressure your organization relative to the problem?
  2. Does science (from either different disciplines or even within the same discipline) find consensus among your organization and stakeholders on the cause-effect relationships that relate to the problem? 
  3. Do your stakeholders have different beliefs and goals related to the problem, but ultimately they share the same values, although communicated in different languages and styles?

If the answer is NO to these three questions, then we argue that you and your organization are indeed facing a wicked problem and should act accordingly. If YES, maybe you are facing a complex or complicated or a strategic problem – but not wicked.

In more academic terms, in their essence, wicked problems have three key features: 1) they change continuously and non-linearly over time; 2) they involve scientific uncertainty, i.e. stakeholders and even scientists disagree on the causes and effects of the problem; and 3) they in involve conflict of values among stakeholders (see the argument developed in Dentoni and Bitzer 2013; Dentoni and Bitzer 2015; and more extensively in Dentoni, Bitzer and Schouten 2016 forthcoming)

P.S. We very much realize that much policy literature, building upon Rittel and Webber (1973), provides way more articulated definitions of wicked problems; but to be helpful and meaningful to managers and change agents in general, we argued that the concept of wicked problems needs more synthesis and "coming to grips" with everyday practice in organizations: and these three questions are meant to bring the concept of wicked problems from the "academic hyper uranium" to everyday practice in organizations, while seeking to capture its very essence...

Consequently, my (shorter) response to the other two fair questions that I often receive out of the ivory tower:

  • An example of non-wicked (or tame) problem: doing a marketing campaign to launch a new product as "sustainable" in a new country maybe a complex, complicated, difficult problem
  • To the irreducible believers that's "better stay positive, don't focus on problems, just focus on opportunities!": thinking about problems with no actionable goal may sound quite pointless at first sight... but, if you give a deeper look, you may see that making sense of the continuously changing nature of problems and act accordingly is perhaps the only way forward to act "effectively" and make an impact in a complex system. Common sentences like: "Researchers only keep analyzing problems", while "managers have to implement solutions, have no time to focus on problems" are really poor stereotypes, and naive sentences. Good researchers and managers - that sense the problems while acting on them AND on opportunities - actually communicate frequently and do both things (analysis and implementation) at the same time. Both researchers or managers who don't master this ambidexterity - i.e., sensing the problems and seeking opportunities at the same time - should perhaps ask more questions to themselves... as they are may fall behind in their capacity of managing future business-society-academia interactions... 

Any thoughts on that? Please contact me and let me know if this helps or confuses you further. I'd be happy either way. Other related questions that deserve attention:

  • How can a manager that is new to a problem say if that problem is wicked or not? New problems are always fuzzy and unclear... Good question to tackle in future research!
  • How can a manager that is familiar with a problem and believes to knows EVERYTHING about it be possibly convinced that the problem is wicked? Good question to tackle in future research... for the time being, we develop training practices, both for managers and students, to "open the manager's mind" and challenge her/his assumptions the nature of problems and solutions to sustainability problems.
  • Once we learned that a certain problem is wicked, so what? In the context of ag-food, we tried to tackle the "so what question" in two International Food and Agribusiness Management Review Special Issues in 2012 and 2013. But the answers are still partial and preliminary. We sought to further expand our perspective in a new Special Issue on tackling wicked problems through what we call Large Systems Change, which has now been published in a Journal of Corporate Citizenship special issue and in a subsequent article in the Journal of Organizational Change Management


We are evidently still scratching the surface in this research direction. We need to learn and share more knowledge with managers to tackling the question on how managers and change agents should work on sustainability problems according to their intrinsic nature. My impression is that the next 30 years of management research and practice will much advance in this direction.