Why wicked problems? It’s about complexity!

Nowadays, all kinds of issues are labelled 'wicked problems'. However, this term stands in the way of an effective approach.
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Jun 23, 2021

By Mark Snijder

I might have been conditioned by my job, but in my experience, everything is suddenly called a ‘wicked problem’. From climate change and forest policy to homelessness and oral health care. From the future of journalism to housing in Ireland. And, of course, the fight against the coronavirus is also a wicked problem.   

To be clear: I am glad that the complex nature of these issues is on the agenda. These issues are often unstructured, unpredictable and unclear, and require different ways of thinking and working. But the term ‘wicked problems’ bothers me. It puts us on the wrong track, and stands in the way of an effective and necessary new approach to these issues.  


First about the term ‘wicked’. Calling a problem ‘wicked’ gives it a negative connotation. It is something capricious and elusive, a tough issue or a devilish dilemma. ‘Wicked’ stands for something evil, from the Old English term ‘wicca’, which means witch. By calling complex issues ‘wicked’, we give complexity a normative (and negative) connotation. While it is simply (part of) reality. Society is complex and may become even more so. So let us not demonise (or ‘bewitch’) complexity, but rather learn to deal with it in the best possible way.  


Moreover, not every issue is a ‘problem’. Improving our (oral) health care system may not be easy, but we should not label it as a ‘problem’ from the outset. Just like the redesigning of journalism or developing effective housing policies. 

For me, this is more than a semantic discussion. By calling them ‘wicked problems’, we reduce multifaceted issues to problems — for which ‘solutions’ are therefore needed — and place them outside the ‘normal’ course of events. But precisely because of their complexity, these issues are closely intertwined with all kinds of fields and situations in which we operate every day. Climate change is not a problem we can isolate and solve with a quick fix; it is about everything we do and don’t do in our daily lives.


Is there a better term? There certainly is. Let’s call these issues what they are: complex. That term is better substantiated and defined than it might seem at first glance. For example, the Cynefin framework by Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden makes a clear and useful distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’. In short, complicated issues are unambiguous, predictable and static. Complex issues can be interpreted in multiple ways, are highly dynamic, and solutions often emerge as they go along.  

This distinction has major implications for leadership, planning, strategy development, decision-making and knowledge development. And it is precisely these that should be the subject of discussion when working on the approach to climate change or on better housing policies.