Wicked problems and business strategy: is design thinking an answer?



Obesity. Climate change. Brain drain. Tax havens. War in Afghanistan. All have been described as “wicked problems”.

UC Berkeley scholars, Rittel and Webber, coined the term in 1973 when they were reacting to urban planning challenges, a frustrating process that was attempting to find scientific bases to social problems. Wicked problems were described by systems scientist and philosopher C. West Churchman as “a class of social system problems, which are ill-formulated; where the information is confusing; where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values; and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”.

Post 9-11, the illusion of the security of linear, rational approaches to planning and problem solving was shattered and there was a spike in the usage of the term “wicked problems” across academic disciplines, public policy and the media. It was thrown around at climate change conferences, in Australian public policy initiatives, in the Harvard Business Review, and even by the Australian Tax Commissioner. “Wicked problems” are even a focus of study for members of the armed forces in the Masters of Strategy at the US Naval School in Monterey, California.

The term has resonated with public policy makers of recent years, as the problems they face – ageing, migration, poverty, sustainability – are all of this nature. They are difficult to define, ambiguous, unstable, do not have one solution, and are beyond the realm or mandate of any one department or discipline. It’s also resonating in the business community, where operating in “wicked territory” challenges existing business processes. Contemporary strategic-planning processes don’t help enterprises. Trying to define the problem is a never-ending task, the amount of information you could gather is endless, and the usual planning techniques are not generating fresh ideas.

So is it that we have more wicked problems today, or are we just categorising more difficult problems as “wicked”? What are the implications for management, and by extension management education, if you are operating in this “wicked territory” And is “design thinking” really an answer? Design thinking is not new; it can be linked to the work of the likes of John Dewey and Edward De Bono. Its ethos is human-centered, integrative, optimistic and collaborative, and warrants serious consideration as a possible creative response to wicked problems. For businesses, it is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

This is why we see a resurgence in “design thinking” for business and management, because traditional problem solving processes aren’t much help with wicked problems. Design thinking is more about unwrapping the problem solving process: it suggests that the creative process is not sequential, but overlapping and iterative; it requires input from people with different disciplines and backgrounds; it is argumentative, and requires integrative thinking. It’s about ‘failing forward’, rapid prototyping and using the wisdom of crowds. We already see very successful firms embracing some of these elements, the iconic IDEO, and newer firms such as Threadless, Local Motors and Kiva. The evidence is mounting – these are successful alternative platforms for creativity, design and problem solving.

Working in wicked territory also presents several issues for management education: the need to instill integrative thinking (this may be through experiencing design thinking processes), to build empathy in developing a human-centred approach to problem solving (by spending time with end-users, engaging in ethnographic methods), and to develop skills in boundary spanning (being able to communicate, respect and understand different worlds or business units). Even McKinsey, Dell and National Australia Bank are wanting to reinvent management for the 21st century. It is this skill set that is crucial when operating in wicked territory, in building innovation capability, and more broadly updating our managerial approach to value creation and the perceived tradeoff between economic efficiency and social progress.