2019 Volume 22 Issue 3

Leadership is a Wicked Problem

Leadership is a Wicked Problem

Invited Article

We would be vastly better off if we understood what wicked problems are and learned to distinguish between them and regular (or “tame”) problems. Jay Rosen[1]

In All Life is Problem Solving, philosopher Karl Popper argues that in order to survive, all living things must master the skills of solving problems.[2] While many leaders are skillful in managing or even solving some problems, at times they find themselves confused, perplexed, and frustrated. Most of this angst comes from the fact that while leaders are expected to solve problems, very few actually get solved! The principle reason for this is that most leaders are unaware that the problems they struggle with cannot be “solved” but only worked on.

In this article, the author clarifies the differences between those problems that can be solved—Tame Problems—and those that cannot—Wicked ones—and spells out the both the implications of these, and what can be done to deal with them.

CEO “Churn”

In early October of 2018, after only 17 months as CEO of the General Electric Co., John Flannery was fired. Almost a year later, on September 5, 2019, Tapestry, a new company that was created when the handbag company Coach acquired Kate Spade in 2017, ousted its CEO, Victor Luis.[3]

CEO’s being fired is not a “man bites dog” story. It happens so often that it has become a routine event. The “churn” of senior executives into and out of CEO positions is reported by the business press on a daily basis Yet firing a senior executive at a major company is never a simple nor easy decision. It is disruptive and unsettling: It disrupts ongoing plans, practices and policies; it unsettles other executives, employees, suppliers and customers. It is also a sign of failure in a culture that is relentless in its adherence to a “Can Do” attitude. Having to deal with a “Can’t Do” situation is stressful and painful. It is evidence that that a mistake was made, that the wrong person was selected, groomed, promoted and hired and, in some cases, anointed.

The Essence of Leadership is Coping with Problems

Why do companies fire their senior executives (and let others go as well)? Clearly there are many reasons. There is also an overarching one: Those who are fired demonstrate over time that they are unable to cope with the serious problems that they are expected to solve. An inability to solve or even manage a companies’ problems becomes prima facie evidence of incompetence.

Coping successfully with problems is not just a requirement for leaders in business. It is a challenge we all face. Since almost all of our activities are connected with problems, working with them successfully is arguably among our most important activities. In a Guide for the Perplexed, philosopher and economist E. F. Schumacher writes, “To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems.”[4]

Almost everything a leader says or does is connected in one way or another with a problem. And according to consultant Mike Myatt, the most important leadership skills for leaders are, first, facing up to the organizational problems that are interfering with success, and second, dealing with them successfully. In a column published in Forbes titled “The #1 Problem Every Leaders Has But Isn’t Aware Of,” Myatt writes, “Let’s cut right to the chase—the biggest problem all leaders face is problem solving itself…Pick any leadership challenge and it boils down to a problem solving issue—nothing more, nothing less. Issues surrounding talent, finance, public policy, operations, social purpose, execution, competition, litigation, etc., are simply problems to be solved.”[5]

Effective leadership in a large organization is a hugely complicated and complex endeavor. No leader can ever fully understand what is going on in his or her organization, let alone make all the right moves. But successful leaders, the ones who do not get fired but survive and even flourish, are the ones who can identify the most important problem situations they are facing, spend the time and effort to understand them, decide why they are important, then lead the effort to make changes that will improve the problem situations.

Two Kinds of Problems

While there is a tendency to see all problems the same, not all problems are alike. Among the most important difference is identified in an statement made a number of years ago by former Secretary of State George Schultz. There is a huge difference, he said, between “problems you can solve” and “problems you can only work at.”[6]

An example of a problem that could be solved (and eventually was) was the mystery of the disappearing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While being transported home in their chartered airplane after a game, a cherished tradition of the NBA Golden State Warriors was enjoying an astounding number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Imagine their surprise and frustration when after a game in February of 2015, the players discovered that the peanut butter, strawberry jelly, and bread had disappeared.

“Other teams have real problems, and the Warriors have peanut-butter-and-jelly problems” wrote Ben Cohen in The Wall Street Journal.[7] What happened to the peanut butter? After winning the NBA championship in 2014, the team owners, hoping to make the team even better, hired a new health and fitness team. Among their first actions was to ban peanut butter and jelly-too much fat and sugar they said. What these fitness experts failed to notice was that in February of 2015, when the peanut butter and jelly were confiscated, the Warriors, with a record of 44 wins and only 4 losses, were the best team in the NBA. When Steve Curry, the superstar of the team, made it clear that the sandwiches would not be banned, the nutrition experts quickly retreated and peanut butter and jelly once again appeared. Problem solved.

An example of a problem that could not be solved but only worked on appeared when newly appointed CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, in the first meeting of the executive team, asked, “What is the purpose of this team? Why does it exist.” Nadella’s questions were fundamental: “Are we adding value to this company. And if yes, what is it? If no, what should it be.” Nadella offered no answers to these questions, making it clear that the team itself would have to come up with answers.

Nadella’s questions identified problems that had no correct answers. They could never be “solved,” but only worked on. And after what must have been interesting and even perhaps intense discussions, the team came up, not with the “right” answer or “correct” solutions, but their best effort, one they created themselves. As Nadella put it, “The framework we came up with is the notion that that our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment and intensity. What is it we want to get done? Are we aligned in order to get it done? And are we pursuing that with intensity?”[8]

These Problem Have Names

In the 1970s, two social scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber, published a paper in which they gave names to these two types of problems. The problems that could be solved they called Tame, and problems that could not be solved but only worked on they named Wicked.[9] And with this, they initiated what has turned out to be a revolution in how we think about problems and what we must do in order to deal with them.

The disappearing peanut butter and jelly sandwich problem could be solved; it was a Tame problem. Tame Problems are solved by relying on science or technology, or upon the pronouncements of authorities or experts.

The Microsoft team’s problem was in a different category. It was Wicked. For the problem they were given—What is the purpose of the executive committee?—there were no “correct” “solutions” to discover. The one they came up was the best one they could create. It was also one among an infinite number of other “solutions” that could have been chosen.

The problem revolution begun by Rittle and Webber’s powerful insight is based upon the fact that all problems that matter are either Tame or Wicked. And for those who struggle with them, this difference makes all of the difference.

On the Nature of Wicked Problems

Rittle and Webber determined that wicked problems had the following ten characteristics:

  • There can be no a priori, agreed-upon definition for a wicked problem. Any problem definition must be created by those who are trying to solve it.
  • When working on a wicked problems, there is no stopping rule. Work continues until people grow tired, lose interest, when budgets are cut, or when they die.
  • All “solutions” are neither “true” nor “correct,” but only good, better, or best.
  • There is no way to know whether a “solution” for a wicked problem is useful or helpful until after it has been implemented.
  • Every “solution” to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation. There is no “trial and error.” Every attempt counts.
  • There is no finite set of possible solutions; possible solutions are infinite.
  • Every wicked problem is unique. No one has ever seen it before.
  • There is no single “root cause” for a wicked problem, but a multitude of causes. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another wicked problem.
  • Wicked problems, like all problems, are discrepancies between a present state and a future one. The nature of the discrepancy or gap is defined by the world view of the observer. For example, the cause of crime can be explained by any of the following: not enough police, poverty, lack of education, social disintegration, easy access to weapons, gang activities, etc. The choice of an explanation determines the way the problem will be addressed.
  • Those who attempt to address wicked problems have no right to be wrong. If they do not get it right the first time, they are often punished.[10]

An examination of these characteristics of wicked problems makes clear why they are so wicked: There is no right way view or define that problem since those who are involved will see it differently; there is no way to know when to stop working on a wicked problem, and so it can never be definitively “solved;” all wicked problems are connected to other problems and so separating one out from the others is impossible; and there are no “true” answers, or correct solutions, but only those that are better than the others.

Leadership is a Wicked Problem

The primary and most important purpose of leaders, be they in families, teams, organizations or nations, is to identify the important problems that they are facing and make sure they are solved. Everything else they do is connected in one way or another with their struggles with problems. If there were no problems—if things worked as they should or as we wanted them to—there would be no need for leaders. This idea that may seem strange in a society where leaders occupy the highest rungs of prestige, power, and economic reward. Yet the omnipresence of leaders, their importance, and deference we give to them, is evidence that we have problems for which we have no solutions or answers. Few things works as we expect them to—education, health care, teams, and government are examples—and so we turn to leaders in the hopes that they will find ways to solve our problems.

And this brings us to a new problem. Even though we expect our leaders to solve our problems, they often fail to solve them. The primary reason is that almost all of the problems we assign to our leaders are wicked and not tame. But wicked problems do not get solved—they can only be worked on. Mike Myatt, who I quoted earlier, believes that “most leaders are woefully inept when it comes to problem solving.”[11] And first among the reasons for this woeful ineptness is that almost all leaders are not aware that some problems are tame and others are wicked. If leaders set out to “solve” problems that cannot be solved, they will either fall short of others’ expectations or end up with outright failure or often, both.

Increasingly, scholars, academics and practitioners are aware that the most important problems that leaders face are wicked:

John C. Camillus, professor of management at the University of Pittsburg writes: “In business, some problems are easy, some problems are hard, and some problems are so complex, so intractable…that they are best described as “wicked.” Wicked problems, Camillus claims, are basically unsolvable, making the usual tools of problems solving in business “virtually impotent.”[12]

Author and consultant Marty Neumeier relies upon a biological metaphor: Wicked problems are like piranha, he writes, crowding in and threatening us with disaster. This is especially true in the world of business where leaders and managers must face such wicked problems as “breakneck change, omniscient customers, balkanized markets, rapacious shareholders, traitorous employees…and pricing pressure from desperate global competitors….[13]

British professor and organizational theorist Keith Grint makes a case that wicked problems are the core challenges of leadership: “Management might be focused on solving complex but essentially Tame problems in a unilinear fashion: applying what worked last time; but leadership is essentially about facing Wicked problems that are literarily ‘unmanageable.’”[14]

And not only unmanageable, he adds, but unsolvable as well: since there is rule for stopping work on wicked problems, “we often end up having to admit that we cannot solve wicked problems.”[15]

In May of 2015, newly appointed provost at the University of Southern California, Michael Quick, challenged the Board of Trustees, the faculty and the students by posing a crucial question: What is to be USC’s contribution to the students, the community, the nation and to the world? He then answered his own question: We must tackle the most difficult, intractable, and most important problems facing us in the 21st century. “These are called wicked problems,” he said, “[and include] poverty, food and water security, obesity, social justice, cancer, sustainability and climate change, terrorism, cyber security, aging and dementia. These are the big, complex problems facing the 21st century.”[16]

The leaders and authors noted above are have discovered something important: As the 21st century progresses, we can expect to encounter more difficult and complex problems, and most of them will be wicked. Our leaders will be expected to deal with them. Will they be ready?

Adding Value

The function of all leaders is to add value to organizations by helping them set and reach their important goals. As they work to add value, leaders must grapple with problems, almost all of which are wicked. Once leaders are aware of the existence and nature of wicked problems, and then gain confidence and skill in dealing with them, their value to the organization increases exponentially, not only because they become more capable of grappling with them, but they also can help others learn about them. Among the critical insights to share are the following:

  • Most organizational problems cannot be solved, they can only be worked on. Giving up the expectations of “solving” is crucial.
  • For wicked problems, there are no “solutions” to be discovered. “Solutions” must be created by committed people working together.
  • All solutions to wicked problems are temporary arrangements that, while they may make things better for a while, but must be visited again and again in order to make new arrangements. For wicked problems, no “solutions” are permanent.
  • For wicked problems, there is no single “root cause” than can be discovered and fixed. There is an infinite number of causes that affect any problem. The task of those who are working on the problem is to decide which of these are the most important.
  • Leaders have no special knowledge of the nature of problems or what needs to be done. They must work with others.
  • All wicked problems are unique. No one has seen them before. Figuring out what is different about each one is required before moving to action.
  • There are no specialized experts to turn to for solutions. Advice, recommendations, counseling, yes. But “expert” solutions are no better than anyone else’s.
  • Rather than searching for a “correct” or “true” solution, what is required is for the team is to struggle together and create the “best “one. The principle here is crucial: None of us has the correct answer, and only by working together can we come up with one that may make things better.
  • For wicked problems, there is no stopping rule that ends the process.

Making All of the Difference

In a world saturated with problems, when leaders meet to address a serious problem, the first question on the table must be: “Is this a tame problem or a wicked one?” The answer will determine: What should be done? By whom? When? For how Long? And how will we know when we are finished? In short, the answer to this question will determine everything that follows, and set in place all of the possibilities for success.

Most of the problems that leaders face each day, and will continue to face into the future, are wicked. “The narrow-gauge mindset of the past,” writes Marty Neumeier, “is insufficient for today’s wicked problems. We can no longer play the music as written. Instead, we have to invent a whole new scale.”[17]


[1] Rosen, J, (2012) “Wicked problems,” in Brockman, J. (Ed) This will make you smarter. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 203.

[2] Popper, K. (1999). All life is problem solving. London: Routledge.

[3] Firing of John Flannery of GE in The New York Times, October 2, 2018. Tapestry fires Victor Luis reported in The Wall Street Journal, September, 5, 2019.

[4] Schumacher, E. (1977) A guide for the perplexed. New York: Harper & Row. p. 120.

[5] Myatt, M. “The #1 Problem Every Leader Has But Isn’t Aware Of.” Forbes, October 31, 2013.

[6] Schultz’s comment is found in Hamel, Gary. (2007) The future of management. Cambridge, MA. Harvard Business Press, p. 38.

[7] Cohen, B., “The Peanut-Butter-and Jelly-Warriors,” The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2015.

[8] Bryant, A., “Microsoft’s New Chief Says It’s Time to Create. “The New York Times, February 21, 2014.

[9] Rittle, H., & Webber, M. (1973) “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences. Vol 4. pp.155-169.

[10] Rittle H., & Webber, M. (1973).

[11] Myatt, M. ( 2013).

[12] Camillus, J. (2016) Wicked strategies: How companies conquer complexity and confound competitors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. ix.

[13] Neumeier, M. (2008) The designful company. Berkeley, CA. New Riders, p.1

[14] Grint, K (2005). Leadership: limits and possibilities. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, p. 9

[15] Grint, K (2010). Leadership: a very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 17

[16] Quick, M. W. (2015). USC Installation Remarks Provost Michael W. Quick. Retrieved from https://www.provost.usc.edu/files/2016/11/Michael_W_Quick_Installation_Remarks_05062015-1.pdf

[17] Neumeier, M. (2008), p. 27.

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Author of the article
Joseph C. Bentley, PhD
Joseph C. Bentley, PhD
Joseph C. Bentley is an emeritus professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of Utah and Distinguished Professor of Organizational Development at the University of Monterrey, Monterrey Mexico. He is author of the website www.tamingwickedproblems.com. His book, Exploring Wicked Problems: What They Are and Why They Are Important, written with co-author Michael Toth, PhD, is available from Amazon and the publisher, Archway Publishing.
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