Problem Thinking

Wicked Problems in Leadership & How to Respond

Monday 2 December, 2019


The biggest issues that organisations grapple with are not easy to resolve. They are likely to be deep-seated and multi-layered, messy and intractable, impacted by and impact on a huge range of factors. These are what Keith Grint refers to as wicked problems. 

“In contrast, a tame problem, however complicated has – somewhere – a solution. Pay negotiations, building a factory, a planned abdominal operation: apply science, logical thinking and best practice, and a solution can be found.”

A leader’s approach to these problems is not dissimilar to the concept of Newtonian physics: by applying fixed laws we can predict what will happen in the future. The notion of the organization as a “well-oiled machine”, or “running like clockwork”, or the idea of “pulling levers to get things done” stems from this form of scientific thinking. 


Wicked problems usually don’t have solutions. Can knife crime ever fully go away? Or drug abuse, or Type 2 diabetes? It is highly unlikely. Why? Because the factors which affect them – and which are affected by them - are multi-faceted, continually changing, and subject to free will and social change. Wicked problems cannot be taken out of their environment, solved and put back in without affecting their environment. 

So wicked problems are inherently messy, making them complex rather than complicated. In this sense, Newtonian thinking is less helpful, and we might turn instead for inspiration to quantum physics, where objects are in perpetual motion, and there are no causal certainties, only correlations and probabilities. 

Stephen Hawking remarked that “The 21st century will be the century of complexity.” Increasingly, linear projections (e.g. about the 2016 UK Brexit vote, or the result of the 2016 US election) are becoming inadequate in the face of complexity. One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to treat a wicked problem as a tame one, to design a solution based on fixed laws and what has worked in the past and then expect the problem to go away. As our ability to predict the future is diminishing, so the reliability of “best practice” solutions are reducing. When faced with complexity, leaders must adapt their thinking.


New sciences such as quantum physics are now focusing on whole systems and on the relationships within the networks. If the system holds the problem, then only the system has the power to improve the situation. So, what we move towards now is the importance of interdependence and relationships; leadership by the many rather than the few.

A system leader’s role is to seek discussion and dissent, to be curious about differing perspectives, to facilitate multiple conversations and build powerful relationships so that the system is able and willing to take collective responsibility for understanding and addressing these wicked problems. For this, the system will need a clear vision of what the future could look like, simple rules of engagement so they can act decisively, and the ability to keep making adjustments in the light of experience. 


Here at the Civil Service College, we offer a course that can help you to gain a better understanding of what Wicked Problems by giving tips and techniques to help you to deal with problems you and your organisation face. To find out more about our course ‘Wicked Problems And The Complex World or to book onto the course, give us a call on 020 8069 9000.


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