Elevate your leadership and face of a growing wave of wicked problems

Elevate your leadership and face of a growing wave of wicked problems

Solving wicked problems is crucial for executive, board, and organisational success in today’s increasingly complex world. Practical advice and tips from experience are explored in this article, which can be applied in your business today. 

Key Takeaways
  • Differentiate between simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic problems.
  • Recognize and dispel myths about complex problem solving that inhibit progress.
  • Engage multiple stakeholders and use available tools to make problem-solving easier, faster and better.
  • Cultivate a culture of ongoing improvement and adaptability.

Have you ever paused to consider the challenges you face and how they differ in character?

Some years ago, I was engaged to help a client tackling a city-wide water crisis. His team had identified 90 possible “solutions”; his conundrum was which to choose and why. We achieved rapid progress when we clarified the problems he faced. Some were policy problems, others tactical problems. This enabled us to better match potential solutions with the corresponding problem type.

Not all problems are the same

As a senior executive, you’re aware that not all problems are alike. Problems can be simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic, each requiring a different approach. Today, let’s focus on the most daunting: wicked problems.

Wicked problems

Complicated isn’t complex

Complicated problems are often technical in nature, like optimizing a portfolio of assets. We typically seek expert help, using analysis to find the “best” answer. In contrast, managing the clean energy transition is a complex problem. It’s messy, systemic, and continuously evolving. A team of experts might need to work together just to grasp its complexity, knowing there isn’t a single “right” solution.

Wicked problems have special qualities

Wicked problems, a subset of complex problems, are not only messy and dynamic, they’re often time constrained and lacking a central authority. Those addressing the problem also frequently contribute to it. And the human dimension, often overlooked, is crucial.

While some complex problems could be technically solved, socio-political factors—beliefs, choices, and trade-offs—complicate the situation. Ignoring these elements perpetuates the problem and its significant costs.

Wicked problems

Senior leaders attract wicked problems

More senior roles come with more complex problems. Complexity comes with having to consider longer time frames, more stakeholders, more jurisdictions, and a wider range of disciplinary inputs. The challenge is growing, due to factors like:

  • Increasing interconnectedness between physical, digital, economic, and social systems
  • Rapid technological advances with intersecting and cumulative effects
  • Increasing bureaucratisation and ill-suited governance structures
  • Fragmentation of worldviews and contested truths
  • A pace of change that is outstripping our ability to respond and adapt
  • The persistence of problems that should have been addressed earlier

The easy but bad decision is to kick complex problems down the road. Delayed action erodes trust, escalates debate, and increases the costs of both action and inaction.

What does success look like?

Complex and wicked problems can’t be “solved” in the traditional sense. Rather, your goal should be to make the situation better, not worse. Tragically, what “better” looks like is often vague, filled with unstated assumptions that lead to ongoing but ineffective efforts.

It’s important to spend time defining “better” in terms of outcomes and benefits for people, expressed in the words of the beneficiaries. My experience is that your people will find this clarity both focusing and motivating.

Three big myths that impede progress

Three myths often hinder real progress in tackling wicked problems:

Myth 1: “We have the experienced leaders and analytical capability to solve any problem… although some more data might help.”
This is rarely true. Too many organizations waste time analysing data, hoping to find a solution. And while senior leaders often excel at solving complicated problems, they are often ill-equipped for complex ones. Indeed, behavioural science shows that the complexity of problems often exceeds the cognitive capabilities of many leaders, leaving them “in over their heads.”

Myth 2: “Complex problems need complex interventions.”
Again, untrue. The good news is that much of the complexity we perceive and experience is “noise” that’s not central to the problem. When we can see through the noise we can find more targeted, elegant solutions.

Myth 3: “Any progress is slow, hard-won, fragile, and expensive.”
Resolving complex problems needn’t be a hard, relentless slog. Progress can be swift when you cut through the noise and involve people in creating solutions they love, saving time, money, and reputations.

How to make genuine progress

Three practices are pivotal to making meaningful progress:

  1. Systems thinking: Complex and wicked problems are features of dynamic systems. Understanding these problems demands systems thinking.
  2. Deliberate engagement: No one can fully grasp the complexity alone. You need to engage multiple stakeholders for collective inquiry, learning, and decision-making.
  3. Adaptive action: Problem diagnosis only provides a hypothesis about what’s going on. You then need to test its assumptions and associated interventions, which also means that learning is core to the work of complex problem solving.

Tip: The best approach is to learn by doing, building skills while getting results in tackling the challenges that matter to you. A suite of tools that make these practices easy to develop, allowing you to embed high performance into the DNA of your organisation. I covered them in my latest book which is loaded with practical advice from experience.

Wicked problems

Executive fitness to lead complex problem-solving

To lead effectively, you need to hone some capabilities and dispositions. Firstly, the capabilities are:

  1. Systems thinking to understand the problem and target interventions well
  2. Collaboration to build shared insight and enable effective and efficient action
  3. Generative dialogue to overcome mental barriers, entrenched behaviours, and conflict that can occur in collaboration

Three attitudes will help to make your work on wicked problems more engaging, rewarding and effective:

  1. An embrace of constructive discomfort and learning at all levels.
  2. Curiosity and compassion for the experiences, values, and beliefs shaping people’s choices and actions.
  3. An emphasis on useful, ongoing improvement rather than “right” or “best” solutions.

Wicked problems

The reality of the executive challenge

How many executives seek discomfort, vulnerability, or questioning their past decisions? Not many. Yet, this is precisely what’s needed to cultivate wise and effective leadership in tackling our most consequential challenges. Developing this capacity requires time for learning and reflection, challenging but crucial work for personal and business transformation.

Tip: Accelerate your learning by asking powerful questions. This benefits you and everyone around you.

Wicked problems

Boards have an important role to play

With the executive challenges in mind, and the importance of resolving wicked problems to many organisations, Board’s have an important role to play. The five (5) contributions a board should make to enabling success are:

  1. Coaching executives to ensure problems are being tackled according to their “type”, i.e. complicated vs complex.
  2. Encouraging and supporting the engagement of external problem-solving coaches and facilitators to complement the in-house executive skill set.
  3. Building learning goals into executive development and performance plans.
  4. Supporting targeted collaboration and partnerships to tackle important business challenges that no party can resolve alone.
  5. Orienting the organisation’s culture toward ongoing learning and improvement at all levels of the organisation.

The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all. In a world that’s changing so rapidly, the best strategy for long-term success is continuous learning. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft


As a senior leader, you face some of the most complex and dynamic challenges, known as wicked problems. By embracing effective leadership practices, engaging with stakeholders, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and collaboration, you can make a significant impact. The increasing interconnectedness of systems, rapid technological advances, and socio-political complexities demand that leaders adapt and evolve. Elevate your leadership and transform your approach to wicked problem solving to drive better outcomes and sustain organizational success.