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Solving “Wicked Problems” – the road to a better world?

What makes a problem “wicked” rather than just daunting, formidable or really, really tough? Wicked problems are ones in which we operate with incomplete or contradictory and rapidly-changing information with a large number of stakeholders and with connections to many other problems. How to provide nutritious, satisfying and sufficient food for 9 billion of our neighbors in a sustainable and affordable way is an example of a wicked problem. By DNV GL Chief Sustainability Officer Bjørn K. Haugland; and Professor Kevin Noone, Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES), Stockholm University.

Datang Zangzhou Wind Power Company Ltd. in Liuao. Credit: Nina Eirin Rangøy / DNV GL

Datang Zangzhou Wind Power Company Ltd in Liuao, China. Climate change and the global food crisis are two wicked problems facing the world. Credit: Nina Eirin Rangøy / DNV GL

It’s clear that dealing with wicked problems will require a far greater degree of collaboration and cooperation than most of us are used to applying in our day jobs. We will need to assemble new constellations in which not only stars shine, but where everyone can contribute to illumination. What is equally true, but perhaps less clear is that fixing these constellations in the sky requires trust, and trust needs time, resources and a supportive environment to develop.

We often tend towards homogenization out of tradition and proclivity. Our colleagues have similar backgrounds and training, we develop a professional patois that identifies us as a group as opposed to them who use a different jargon or have a different viewpoint. This kind of tribal compartmentalization is incompatible with solving wicked problems. Even in cases in which silo building is explicitly undesired, we often find ourselves falling into the geometry of separate cylinders almost unconsciously. How can we avoid this trap?

We recognize that diversity is a good thing, regardless whether your organization is a Fortune 500 business, a world-class university, a basketball team or a small mom-and-pop restaurant. Team diversity is a necessary but insufficient condition for successfully tackling wicked problems. In addition our diverse teams will need a safe, authorized, repeated space in which to build trust, learn each other’s languages, find each others’ talents, and together develop a strategy for dealing with complex, interconnected and rapidly changing problem landscapes. The safe aspect means that participants in the space are free to express their curiosity and can attempt to alleviate their ignorance without fear of appearing on YouTube with a “clueless” sign hung around their necks. The authorized aspect signifies that the participants are sufficiently high in the food chains of their organizations that they have a fair degree of decision-making power and responsibility; they can make things happen. The repeated aspect means that the participants will encounter each other often enough that trust building – with its own intrinsic gestation time – can happen.

Given the number of wicked problems we have to deal with today, such as climate change, mass migration and the food crisis, we all want these teams to be in place immediately and without costs for building or maintaining them. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.

What is the way forward?

It seems to us that there are two main issues we need to address. One is creating and resourcing the “safe, authorized, repeated space”. The second is providing incentives for the diverse, talented, driven people to occupy this space and invest enough of themselves so that they can flourish there – and turn the space itself into a creative, collaborative environment for true innovation. We’ll save discussing the creating and resourcing aspects for a later blog, and assume that we have been successful at it. Once we’ve created the space, how do we incentivize people to fully engage in it?

We can start by mapping out the disincentives that exist to doing something risky and out of the ordinary. All professional sectors have metrics by which people are judged. They can be sales quotas achieved, reports written, degrees granted, goals scored or pizzas served. If an individual is to fully occupy and contribute to the safe, authorized, repeated space and help solve wicked problems, it means that they will not be able to fulfill these metrics to the same extent as their colleagues who are not involved in the endeavor. We either need to create a better set of success metrics within all of our respective professions, or we can create an additional reward structure for the folks who dare to step outside their silos. The latter pathway may be the simpler one. We don’t have the perfect solution to this better set of metrics, but we do have some ideas about some of its characteristics.

  1. The metric would be a “dashboard” of indices, rather than a single number.
  2. The indices would capture both quantitative and qualitative information. It’s relatively easy to measure production (such as the number of blog entries published), but more difficult to measure aspects of quality. Measuring the degree to which an individual contributes to making and enhancing a creative, supportive environment is even tougher, but equally important nonetheless.
  3. The metric would be universally recognized. This implies that the metric would be hosted, administered or at least overseen by an organization perceived as trustworthy, transparent and impartial.
  4. An individual scoring high on the metric would be celebrated and rewarded both within and beyond her organization.

DNV GL Chief Sustainability Officer Bjørn K. Haugland.


Professor Kevin Noone, Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES), Stockholm University.

This list of characteristics is not exhaustive.

Together with UN Global Compact and Monday Morning Global Institute, DNV GL prepares an annual outlook for how to turn global risks into opportunities through the Global Opportunity Report. Global risks assemble the characteristics of wicked problems. They represent challenges in which we operate with incomplete or contradictory and rapidly-changing information with a large number of stakeholders and with connections to many other problems.

You may have more and better ideas about what this new metric should contain. If so, we would be happy to hear from you; please let us know what you think. Help us create a better world by making visible and rewarding contributions to solving wicked problems.

6 Comments Add your comment
Avatar Ralph Thurm says:

Bjørn, nice job in describing the problem. The solutions through dashboards and better incentives are only instruments that will work in an atmosphere where partners are willing to discuss purpose, success definitions and scalability options. If not, all remains incremental and will per se not lead to solving any of the wicked problems out there. Through Reporting 3.0 (www.reporting3.org) and the ThriveAbility Foundation (that I co-founded and authored ‘A Leader’s Guide to ThriveAbility’ (www.thriveability.zone) we have much of what you demand in focus and are developing solutions. Precondition in our view: these solution have to be governed as a global public good. Happy to tell you more!

Bjørn K. Haugland Bjørn K. Haugland says:

Hi Ralph,

Thank you – it would be great to connect and to learn more about the tools and methods you have developed.

Let’s find a time to link up on skype, I am sure Kevin would like to join in as well.


Avatar S. Balasubramoniam [Bala] says:

The rich went to be even richer. Though past centuries, through demonstration of ‘might is right’ fewer population have managed to take control over resources and invested to build technologies to make their life better or even luxurious. Now we have a world which is divided into have or have nots and those who have something…which are have named as ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developing’. As long as world trade and greed of corporate and their executives keep increasing, I do not see a ‘sea change’ in climate or wicked food issues. Day has come wherein the Corporate greed promises GMO foods as a solution and they determine what a human should eat. Farmers can no more grow on own seeds, need to buy a ‘superior’ technology, paying royalty year after year. Pesticides are pushed harder leading to environmental disasters. Those who were eating home grown rice or wheat are being forced to eat ‘nutritious’ value added ‘noodles’ and ‘pastas’. Sustainability is new term coined to do what my grandfather always used to do. The governments seem to be having no choice….lured by taxation, fall for corporate strategies. There are no solutions to climate change unless all change their habits – haves to discard their extravagance , the have nots and and those who have something to aspire only for those stuff which are healthy and nutritious and not be taken for a ride by corporate claims.

Bjørn K. Haugland Bjørn K. Haugland says:

thank you – some change of habits will be nessecarry and I am optimistic when interacting with the youth.

Avatar Gabriella Olofsson says:

Solving wicked problems would certainly be a way to a better world. But you have to include the local when trying to solve global problems. The local is heavily affected by the global – and vice versa. Solving wicked problems begins by identifying what is the problem at local level, together with people who in their daily lives struggle to be included, accepted and respected as full human beings. This is a very diverse group of people who in an equal dialogue with those who are included, accepted and respected (and with power to make decisions) need to listen to each other’s perspectives, agree on what the problem is and what they can do together to contribute to change. Then we may find out that the local answer to a perceived global food problem is a differently defined global problem.
Wicked issues change constantly, thus the dialogue must be ongoing.

Avatar Krishnakumar says:

Good thoughts about” safe, authorised, repeated space that can be trusted ” but who trusts whom depends on the narrative and counter narrative about this space?
The govt is no more trusted, nor are certifiers nor NGO’s nor even social media
The greater issues in the world may not be climate change or food crisis but economic inequality, hatred , divisiveness , inequity of monetary structures across nations, the banking system, the war mongering power elite .The wicked issues will remain in such environment.

The post colonial era gave only rise to other forms of exploitation.

I doubt if metrices can solve these wicked problems. As long as the current measure of economy is based on growth, profit and consumption.

All these metric chasing may become barriers too, subject to manipulation and actually reason to keep the status quo, …. An example in point can be the carbon credit system! Why did it pack up?

I think it just gave little. incentive for real change.
Hence you are right, indeed in putting a question mark at the end of the title to this thought provoking article.

The simple answer to the food crisis is a rich world that eat less…. it is good for health, sharing and environment … But may be bad for the food industry and medical industry!
Hence there is indeed a question mark .
Further , There is no incentive to invent a tablet which can obliterate hunger but yet provide all life sustaining nutrients!

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