Tackling Complexity and Wicked Problems with Design Thinking

This post is the second of a two-parts article on design thinking co-written with Ralph-Christian Ohr (@ralph_ohr). You can read first part here.

The world we live in becomes increasingly complex. Complex systems in different areas of our life, such as business, environment, economy etc. involve ever larger numbers of interacting elements. Particularly human interactions are non-linear and result in a basically unpredictable system behavior. One major consequence of complexity is the fact that we have to deal with rising problem wickedness. Ted Cadsby remarks in an interesting post:

“The hallmark of a wicked problem is that it cannot be reduced to a single-cause explanation. Complexity arises from the interconnections between things – how parts within a system interact via intricate feedback mechanisms. The information signals we need to make sense of complex things are buried in a lot of noise, and we, unfortunately, are not adept at digging for cues. We have been conditioned by thousands of years of evolution, as well as our daily routines, to draw speedy conclusions by picking out simple, linear, cause-effect connections. This approach works well with straightforward problems like securing food, shelter and sex, or crossing a busy street. But we are now living in a world where multivariate and non-linear causal connections hide below the surface of our immediate perceptions, and diverge to different possible interpretations.”

Wicked problems are termed as “divergent” as opposed to “convergent” problems. For a so-called ‘tame’ problem, the problem definition is – though it might be very complicated – well understood and promises a solution. The more it is studied, the more various answers sooner or later converge. A divergent problem isn’t well defined and does not promise a solution. The more it is studied, the more people inevitably come to different solutions and interpretations. The process to tackle tame problems is assumed to be fundamentally linear, comprising a sequence of steps leading to a desired outcome / solution. In a complex environment not even a shared problem understanding can be taken for granted. We don’t know what we don’t know.

The question arises how wicked problems, emerging from complex systems, can be properly addressed. We’d like to suggest three ‘pillars’ that seem to be crucial in this context:


Complex contexts and wicked problems require an experimental approach. Because outcomes are unpredictable, decision makers need to focus on an environment from which good things can emerge, rather than trying to bring about predetermined results. This comes along with a tolerance of failure and the ability to refrain from imposing order. It’s essential to let patterns emerge and to determine which ones are convenient. Every experiment exposes new aspects of the problem, leading to further adjustments of the following solution proposal. In place of finding ‘the right solution’, problem understanding and solution must be woven together from beginning to end through explorative iterations.

Diversity and collective intelligence

Wicked problems solving naturally involve a diversity of stakeholders with different perspectives and interpretations. Given that many people care about or have something at stake in how the problem has to be / could be resolved, the process of solving a wicked problem is fundamentally social, and solving a wicked problem is fundamentally a social process. Shared understanding turns out to be a prerequisite for tackling wicked problems. It requires that stakeholders understand each other’s positions to have fruitful exchange about their different viewpoints of the problem – and to leverage collective, holistic, rather than fragmented or individual intelligence, to solve it.

Interpretive approach

A wicked problem usually implies a radical uncertainty, i.e. not simply an inability to predict which of several options will turn out to be the preferred one. No shared problem understanding exists and the context appears so complex that not even the possible outcomes are known. And in the absence of a specified solution, no analytical problem solving can be applied by breaking the problem up into a set of separable parts that can be assigned to different specialists. According to Lester and Piore (“Innovation – The Missing Dimension”), an interpretive approach is indicated in this case. This approach doesn’t target at solving problems or negotiating between contending interests, but at initiating and guiding conversations among individuals and groups. Involved people work through ambiguity and construct shared meaning. Through that process the participants come to understand each other – and themselves – better than before. It’s an open-ended process allowing insights and novelty to emerge.

The distinction between analytical and interpretive approach determines two different ways of understanding teams:

  • Analytical perspective: teams are formed and re-formed of different members with particular competencies required,
  • Interpretive perspective: teams can be organic groups that develop their own language and understanding over time and become greater than the sum of their competencies.


These ‘pillars’ get back to the constituting elements of a complex adaptive Design Thinking framework, outlined in the first part of this post.

Complexity doesn’t nullify present business models and processes, but it taints more and more of their effectiveness and relevance. In order to be prepared to face increased wickedness and complexity, organizations need to make sure to implement those pillars. Leadership is required to set directions, rather than goals, and to facilitate a culture where experimentation, ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance are valued.

This ambiguity should be reflected in the organizational design itself, as wicked problems often arise “on the edge”. Even if disconnected to main business operations, dedicated spaces need to be created for collaboration, empathy and conversation. Those spaces allow for transformation of diverse, subjective perspectives into collective insight and understanding. Furthermore, it’s mandatory to educate and hire appropriate people, being capable of following this approach and of unfolding their potential in such a collaborative environment.


Increased complexity requires a transformation in the way we approach problems. While conventional problem solving is highly analytical, resolving wicked problems can be tackled by a design-oriented approach. Through combining experimentation, diversity and interpretive collaboration, subjectivity of individual stakeholders can be transformed into shared insight. Design Thinking based on these elements has true potential to be leveraged as social framework to utilize collective intelligence.

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16 Responses to Tackling Complexity and Wicked Problems with Design Thinking

  1. Rotkapchen says:

    Now if only you were closer and we could get you to Vancouver in August to host a discussion on same IRL http://dtuc.org/agenda/blog-postings/

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Yes, too bad.. This would have been a great flint stone to make ideas sparkle. The St Gallen event you mentioned on twitter seems more in my reach, this year at least. Even more for Ralph I guess!

  2. Ralph-Christian Ohr says:

    Thanks for your kind comment, Paula – that would be great indeed to have an exchange on that. Unfortunately, Vancouver isn’t close-by. As Thierry mentioned, University of St. Gallen would be almost in front of my door, but they are just organizers. The event actually takes place in Lüneburg / Germany.

    Anyway, it’s great to hear that our ideas would make a valuable contribution 🙂

  3. Rotkapchen says:

    So the alternative is to do as I did, and start your own 🙂 http://dtuc.org/2011/06/11/howd-we-get-here/

    You just need a few ‘good’ friends with the right skills. I can’t do anything without them. And somehow I just keep finding more (sometimes it might take a year or two). Patience is critical.

  4. Interesting lines of thought. I’ve been working on sustainable development for some years now and recognize a lot of what you write about complex and wicked problems. It would have been helpfull to have stumbled upon your blog earlier 🙂

    In my opinion it is even harder for policy advisors in public service to deal with complex and wicked problems, although most of the problems they face are complex and wicked. Often a choice is made in favor of one or two possible policy directions, after which it is almost impossible to change opinion and look at the same problem from a different angle. Instead people dig in to their holes and feel uncomfortable when new knowledge challenges their point of view.

  5. rotkapchen says:

    People dig in their feet? No different than in nature when an unrecognized element is introduced. It’s a natural function of preservation that must be honored. It requires that all must be immersed in a ‘new way’ that is of their own making.

  6. Patrick says:

    All complexity emerge from the combination, bifurcation and recombination of simple things.
    The universe emerges from just 92 elements, Our DNA emerges from just 4 markers.
    So when it coms to systems complexity we need to know four things
    1) The systems purpose (reason for being)
    2) How the system is organized
    3) What forces shape the system
    4) How the system interacts (cascading sequence of dynamic parallel events)
    Once understood complexity can be reduced to a simple set of building blocks that are predictable, reliable, replicable, stackable and freely interconnectable.
    Systems are therefore layers of simplicity, each compounded into a complexity; that in itself is simple.

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