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Collaboration vital to solving wicked problems

Ju Young Lee (Boston College), Alice Mascena (IESE), Frithjof Wegener (TU Delft)

The January Innovation Learning Lab sessions featuring Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff from Carnegie Mellon University was based on their transdisciplinary approach to Transition Design, aiming for systems-level change towards more sustainable futures.  Participants worked in teams [i]. Over three weeks, they worked together to map the history of their wicked problem, then projected a desirable future and proposed interconnected interventions that served as a step toward the desired future.

Learnings and surprises

A key insight from the Lab which generated fruitful discussion among participants and during our research meetings is the importance of how problems are framed in the first place. Framing problems encompass a deep understanding of a problem's background, i.e., its historical antecedents and connections to other problems, and uncovering hidden assumptions.

We also discovered the power of envisioning a future world where a problem has been solved before diving into a solution to solve our immediate problems. This exercise of constructing a shared desired future was energizing and enabled teams to move away from siloed thinking and equipped them with a systems perspective. These mental representations both motivate action under contexts of uncertainty and complexity - as is the case of wicked problems - and provide for a source of creativity (Beckert, 2013).

Finally, we discovered there is a single bullet intervention to wicked problems. They require the explorative role of discussions and experiments leading to ‘ecologies’ of solutions and the willingness to engage with insights derived from these experiments.

We were pleasantly surprised to find convergence in terms of the desired futures envisioned by the different teams. Participants were more engaged in finding collective solutions at the systems level than being bound by the shorter-term interests of their own organizations. Another positive surprise was the increased ability participants showed to "wear multiple hats." They were able to think about problems and solutions through different levels of analysis; they held conversations ranging from individual consumer behaviour to macro-level interventions and threading connections between these levels and across sectors (e.g. education, economy, health).

Key learnings for managers

We believe there is value in plurality and learning from experiences in other places of the world. To push the work further, to make sure we have the deep, sustained conversations around systems transformations, we must pave the way for our desired future.

Overall, a significant implication for managers convening around wicked problems is, for us, to design a multi-stakeholder process. Although the Lab sessions were exercises, we observed that diverse groups generated discussions with different perspectives on the wicked problems. Thus, cross-sectoral collaborations are vital to dealing with a wicked problem's systemic nature, from its initial framing to the design of its solutions.


Beckert, J. (2013). Imagined futures: fictional expectations in the economy. Theory and Society42(3), 219-240.

Churchman, C. W. (1967). Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), 141–142.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

[i]to address one of six wicked problems: climate, natural resources, innovation, resilience and Covid, the workforce and covid, and trust and digitalization