John Camillus’ (2008) article in the Harvard Business Review calls strategy issues “wicked” problems. Wicked problems defy description and they don’t have a “right” answer (Rittel & Webber, 1973), which turns traditional approaches to strategic management and leadership on their head – solving wicked strategy problems is not as easy as simply understanding and then solving them (Rittel & Webber, 1973). And it’s not just that more information doesn’t help – it can actually hurt the strategy formulation process. More broadly, wicked problems can lead to organizational gridlock.
Perhaps the most insidious quality of wicked problems is that they sow discord among the leadership and the stakeholders of organizations. Creating effective solutions to multifaceted problems becomes increasingly difficult when there are multiple stakeholders with dissenting opinions about potential solutions.
Attempting to deal with wicked problems in organizations is often framed by two questions: How are wicked problems identified? and What methods can be used to solve them? For example, Head and Alford (2013) situate wicked problems at the intersection of diversity and complexity – affecting both the “how” and the “what” of the (strategic) decision-making process. Their recommendations for dealing with wicked problems in public organizations can be summarized as “big-picture thinking” (e.g., a holistic view of the problem, new ways of leading, and collaboration and coordination).
We suggest that strategic leaders in both private and public organizations must go one step further in addressing strategic issues — exploring the psychosocial dimensions of wicked organizational problems. Rational approaches to solving wicked problems can serve as defensive maneuvers that mask stakeholder anxieties, collective social defenses, and denial — all of which are an intrinsic dimensions of conceptualizing, or even recognizing, wicked problems. Take for example Mnguni’s (2010) article about anxiety in collaboration for sustainability. In this case, rational processes and structures between funders and action organizations simultaneously and shielded workers from the anxieties associated with an “impossible task” and diminished their problem-solving capabilities
The anxieties and defensive mental states that cause, and are caused by, wicked problems as well as the tangible realities of the problem itself must be taken into account when attempting to “fix” them (Marshak, 2009). Thus, strategic responses to wicked problems must do more than “zoom out” to see the big picture, they must also “zoom in” to assess and manage the complex relational dynamics can potentially stop problem-solving efforts in their tracks.