Strategy as a Wicked Problem
“Wicked” problems can't be solved, but they can be tamed. Increasingly, these are the problems strategists face—and for which they are ill equipped.
by John C. Camillus
Companies tend to ignore one complication along the way: They can't develop models of the increasingly complex environment in which they operate. As a result, contemporary strategic-planning processes don't help enterprises cope with the big problems they face. Several CEOs admit that they are confronted with issues that cannot be resolved merely by gathering additional data, defining issues more clearly, or breaking them down into small problems. Their planning techniques don't generate fresh ideas, and implementing the solutions those processes come up with is fraught with political peril. That’s because, I believe, many strategy issues aren't just tough or persistent—they're “wicked.”
Wickedness isn't a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can't resolve them, according to Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, who described them in a 1973 article in Policy Sciences magazine. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn't have a right answer, as we will see in the next section. Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems. They're the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.
In the areas of public policy, software development, and project design, experts such as Peter DeGrace, Leslie Hulet Stahl, and Jeff Conklin have developed ways of spotting wicked problems and coping with them. DeGrace and Stahl wrote Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catalogue of Modern Software Engineering Paradigms (1990); Conklin authored Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (2006). Policy makers, in particular, have put this powerful concept to good use, but it has been largely missing from strategy discussions. Although many of the problems companies face are intractable, they have been slow to acknowledge the wickedness of strategy issues.