Innovating Wicked Problems

Wicked problems are problems that are extremely difficult or impossible to solve. The best example of this type of problem comes from a project I did with the Department of Education.

Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems

This project aimed to innovate kindergarten through 12th-grade education in the U.S. We ran a series of workshops in our attempt to transform education. The project turned out to be an extremely frustrating endeavor. Looking back, I realize that this qualified as a wicked problem.

This type of problem is something that is inconsistent and changes over time. People's opinions on the problem also change over time. The ecosystem of people interested in education, such as policymakers, teachers, unions, and students, have different opinions and think theirs are superior.

A wicked problem also has a sizeable economic burden or risk. If you mess up education, you impact a generation of people and how they compete in the marketplace. Entangled with other problems by nature, wicked problems are complex.


Wicked problems can often be overwhelming due to their size and complexity. The complexity of the problems comes from these entanglements. For example, if you look at the poverty problem, it is linked to education and linked to nutrition.

Each wicked problem has a set of organizations that are trying to solve the problem. Some try to solve poverty, education, nutrition, economic disparity, etc., from their perspective. Each group believes their approach is the right one. This process becomes part of the overall challenge in finding innovative solutions to these wicked problems.

Wicked problems are unique, and everyone frames them differently. Other things that challenge the solving of wicked problems are restraints and limited resources. These can come in the form of laws and contracts and limited finances and time limits.

Wicked problems are never entirely solvable. The education problems today are just different than the issues that existed when I was in school.

Strategies and Keys to Success

There are two keys to success when finding innovative solutions to these types of problems. Firstly, there is multi-disciplinary collaboration. There need to be experts in many different fields involved in these efforts. If you want to solve education, you need parents, nutritionists, economists, educators, etc.

The second key to success in this area is to have perseverance. Wicked problems are never done and require continuous improvement.

There are a few strategies to tackling wicked problems. The first strategy is an authoritative strategy, which gives a group or individual the responsibility of making decisions. This process simplifies the complexity problem, but some perspectives of the problem are left out.

The second strategy is a competitive strategy that puts opposing points of view against each other. This way presents many different solutions but creates a confrontational environment that reduces knowledge sharing.

The third strategy is collaborative, which consists of getting people to discuss and share their knowledge. The con here is that a collaborative approach takes a lot of time. Remember, don't think about solving wicked problems. Instead, seek to find the proper intervention that will improve them and continue that cycle of improvement.


Let's recap the discussion on wicked problems. The first element to innovating this type of problems is to recognize that there is an adaptive vision. It's not about finding a solution but applying that intervention.

The second element is creating an idea-safe environment that brings people together. It is essential to experiment and try new ideas while encouraging social bonding.

The third element is to enable knowledge sharing. People often approach wicked problems with biases that don't help the situation. It's vital to encourage differences and frame them as strengths. One way to do this is to force face-to-face interaction. This type of interaction is the most beneficial for collaboration.

The last element is recognizing that execution is learning. Don't focus on timelines and blueprints when dealing with complex problems. These things are often changing, so you need to be ready to adapt through each step you take.

To know more about innovating huge unsolvable problems, listen to this week's show: Innovating Wicked Problems

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