Solving your organization’s wicked problems with ‘wicked strategies’

In business, some problems are easy, some are hard, and some are so complex, intractable and threatening to organizations — or entire industries — that they are best described as “wicked.” To the horror of managers, wicked scenarios, and the consequent wicked strategy problems that follow in their wake, are becoming increasingly commonplace.

To managers facing a wicked problem, it can feel as if the ground is shifting under their feet; all that is clear is that traditional solutions no longer work. The wicked scenario is made more difficult because the perceived problem keeps changing as different solutions are considered.

How do you know when you are facing a wicked problem? I have identified five key characteristics:

  1. The perceived “problem” is unusual and substantially without precedent.
  2. There are multiple stakeholders with conflicting values and priorities.
  3. There are many apparent causes of the problem that are inextricably tangled.
  4. It is impossible to be sure when you have the correct or best solution.
  5. The understanding of what the “problem” is changes when reviewed in the context of alternative proposed solutions.

Problems possessing these characteristics are far from amenable to solution by traditional methods. The question then becomes — what approaches will work in the face of such wicked problems? Based on extensive study and consulting, I have determined how to construct “Wicked Strategies” as a means of coping with wicked problems.

To develop Wicked Strategies, I propose a management system that is driven by the organization’s identity— its core values, its enduring aspirations and its distinctive competencies; that employs a Modular Organizational Structure that enables transformation and embraces change and that emphasizes Feed-forward processes that create a desired future — rather than feedback which focuses on lessons from the past.

Fundamental differences

Wicked Strategies differ fundamentally from classic strategies. For instance, classic strategies endeavor to grow a business by seeking and selecting adjacencies that can be served by a core competency.

Wicked Strategies, by contrast, because they are responsive to disruptions, do not have the luxury of restricting growth to adjacencies. Instead of relying on a core competency Wicked Strategies would seek to constantly develop and add to the existing competencies of the organization.

Classic strategic analysis attempts to predict and respond to an expected future. Wicked Strategies recognize the futility of attempting predictions in the face of extreme uncertainty and attempt to create a desired future, reaching out to new arenas that can be cultivated by a dynamic array of inter-related competencies.

To provide a preliminary taste of what a Wicked Strategy might be, let’s look at an example from a 30,000-foot vantage point. For instance, the difference between a Classic approach and a Wicked-Strategies approach to expanding into fast-growing, large, emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and India, is fundamental.

Classic strategies would tend to:

  1. “Glocalize” existing products by marginally modifying existing products in developed economies for the emerging markets, and emphasizing sustaining innovations;
  2. Target the small, upper-income segments — the apex of the pyramid — in emerging markets;
  3. Focus primarily, if not solely, on economic value added.

A Wicked Strategy, in contrast, would:

  1. Focus on the special needs of the vast populations at the bottom of the pyramid and the tens of millions of people entering the middle class in emerging economies to identify novel value propositions;
  2. Generate relevant disruptive technologies, through customer insight and frugal engineering, to meet the needs and price-point expectations of low-income customers;
  3. Seek the potential synergy, or the mutual enhancement, of economic value and social benefit.

In a world of uncertainty and complexity, wicked problems abound. It is up to companies to create Wicked Strategies to respond to these unprecedented challenges.

John C. Camillus is the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Wicked Strategies: How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors  and has served as consultant on strategic management to more than 100 organizations on four continents, including many Fortune 500 companies.