In the dynamic landscape of organizational challenges, some problems are straightforward, while others seem almost impossible to solve. Brenda Zimmerman, a renowned scholar on complexity, introduced the concept of complicated versus wicked problems. Understanding the differences between these two types of problems can provide invaluable insights for organizations seeking effective solutions.

I first discovered the world of social innovation and wicked problems in 2009 when I read Brenda’s book Getting to Maybe. My passion for design as a process for change has led me to care deeply about problem-solving. So, let’s explore the distinction between complicated and wicked problems, their relevance to workplace issues, and how reframing problem questions can lead to better answers.

Simple Problems

A simple problem has a clear and straightforward solution. It typically involves limited variables and is easily defined and resolved with known methods or standard procedures. Simple problems are often routine and can be tackled efficiently, requiring minimal effort and resources. Wouldn’t it be nice if every problem was simple?

In the context of organizational problem-solving, a simple problem might be a minor technical issue that arises and can be resolved by following standard operating procedures or guidelines. These problems are not complex and can be addressed without significant analysis or collaboration. In essence, simple problems are like puzzles with a single correct answer, and those with the necessary knowledge and skills can readily access their solutions.

Complicated vs. Wicked Problems

Complicated problems have clear-cut solutions and defined steps to reach them. A complicated problem might be a collection of simple problems. For instance, getting a rocket into space requires a lot of steps, a lot of people, perfect weather conditions on the day of launch, but we know what success looks like because there is an understood and defined answer. In contrast, wicked problems are far more challenging to define, and their solutions are often elusive. Wicked problems are characterized by ambiguity, interconnectedness, and conflicting perspectives. They may have multiple root causes and no single solution. The example often used is raising children. What works for one kid may not work for another—and what used to work for one kid may seemingly stop working entirely!

Complexity in Organizational Problems

Organizations frequently encounter wicked problems due to their intricate structures, diverse stakeholders, and ever-changing environments. Issues like employee engagement, improving company culture, or fostering innovation often fall into the category of wicked problems. These problems resist simple fixes and require holistic approaches that embrace the complexity of human interactions, values, and goals.

We often reduce problems to very narrow “complicated questions.” The nature of the question suggests an answer is clear-cut and would produce steps to reach a solution. But how often have you thought, “yeah, but … ?”. “Yeah, but’s” can be great additions to a question that hints toward the complexity at play.

The Power of Reframing

To effectively address wicked problems, organizations can reframe their problem questions to gain fresh perspectives and foster creative thinking. Let’s explore how reframing common workplace problem questions can lead to better solutions.

Complicated Problem Question:“How can we improve employee productivity?”

Yeah, but not everyone works the same way. Yeah, but the question makes it seem like everyone isn’t productive. Yeah productivity is important, but is there value in focusing on motivation and employee empowerment?

Reframed Wicked Problem Question: “How can we create a work environment that motivates and empowers employees to excel, considering individual needs, aspirations, and diverse work styles?

By reframing the question, organizations recognize that productivity is not solely about task completion but also about employee well-being and engagement. The wicked problem question acknowledges the complexity of human factors and the need for tailored strategies.

Here’s another example:

Complicated Problem Question:“What is the best marketing strategy to increase sales?”

Reframed Wicked Problem Question: How can we build a marketing strategy that resonates with our diverse customer base and adapts to changing market trends, while maintaining our brand identity and values?”

The wicked problem question addresses the dynamic nature of marketing and acknowledges the importance of continuously aligning strategies with customer preferences and market fluctuations, rather than just seeking a set of tactics.

Let’s try one more, just for fun:

Complicated Problem Question: “What technologies should we invest in to streamline operations?”

Reframed Wicked Problem Question: “How can we create a technology plan that optimizes efficiency while considering our limited resources, employees’ skills, and potential risks associated with rapid technological advancements?”

The wicked problem question acknowledges that technology decisions go beyond simply adopting the latest trends and must be mindful of resource constraints and the organization’s unique context.

Embracing Wickedness for Success

To tackle wicked problems, organizations must embrace the wickedness and collaborate across departments and hierarchies. Engaging diverse perspectives, encouraging open dialogue, and involving stakeholders at all levels can lead to innovative and inclusive solutions. And, I get it. It can feel hard to make space for all of the “yeah, but’s”, however, recognize the gift of seeing some complexity before you begin looking for solutions. Our wicked problems—the ones that hang around and defy getting solved—benefit from reframing the question you’re asking and will deliver a different result. We move resources toward the questions we’re preoccupied with.

As organizations face ever-evolving challenges, understanding the difference between complicated and wicked problems becomes crucial. Brenda Zimmerman’s work on complexity helps us recognize the unique nature of wicked problems and the need for creative approaches to address them. By reframing workplace problem questions into wicked problem questions, organizations can harness the power of diverse perspectives, foster innovation, and find more effective solutions to navigate the complex terrain of organizational challenges.

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