• Simon Phillips

The Art of Coping with Complexity or Wicked issues need WICKEDD solutions


“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.”

Mark Twain


Everyone experiences wicked issues at times, both in their home and work lives.

The term ‘wicked’ in this context has been used, particularly in public services, to help label the really difficult to solve issues. Examples in national governments are how to solve obesity, how to prevent global terrorism, what to do about global warming and so on. We can all imagine the equivalent wicked issues in supra-national, private sector, local government, and third sector organisations – we can relate wicked issues in our personal lives too.

The key themes running through wicked issues are that they are really tricky to define, tricky to get control of and tricky to solve – they might even appear not to be solvable. Colloquially they can feel like ‘knitting fog’, ‘managing a box of frogs’ or ‘herding cats’ – there are plenty of sayings such as these that help us appreciate that wicked issues have been around for ever!

In the 1990s organisations (and particularly the US military) helped give a narrative to the nature of wicked issues and why they arise by talking about ‘VUCA’. VUCA is a generally-accepted acronym used to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of activities and situations. It is true that these traits are exhibited in a ‘VUCA’ world, but they are not co-dependent any more than they are mutually-exclusive. A particular wicked issue might exhibit volatility and complexity, or similarly it could be complex but certain.

There are other realities about working in a wicked VUCA world. For instance, one doesn’t solve wicked issues by working against a five-year plan, by procrastinating and focusing on dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. We need to avoid all of the enemies of successfully managing wicked issues such as silo-working, trying to over-control, and fear of failure. Most people will be able to think of one wicked issue where the ‘robust’ solution was fairly clear, but it took so long to put in place that the issue itself had moved or metamorphosed by the time that the ‘robust’ solution was implemented. There has probably been loads of pain in the interim, and the ‘solution’ doesn’t really help in abating that.

For us at The Change Maker Group we were concerned with how we could deal with wicked issues however they emanate and whatever traits are shown – it really shouldn’t matter. We developed our WICKEDD© solution as a means of advising how to get to grips with those wicked issues in a wicked VUCA world.

WICKEDD is a simple mnemonic to help give focus to an approach to work through wicked issues. Each aspect of WICKEDD can have various techniques and tools applied, but the principal approach to getting control of a tricky issue is the same. If the problem can’t realistically be solved at least one can move it on to a better outcome and minimise the unforeseen consequences. That way we can help ‘complexity to be your friend’.

“Wicked issues need WICKEDD© solutions”

WHAT, WHY, WHERE taking a helicopter view of the situation with no preconceived solutions.

INTERDEPENDENCIES working out all of the aspects of the wicked issues, getting to grips with the interconnectivity.

CAUSALITY what are the root causes, what is taking us away from the route to our Vision?

KNOWLEDGE what do you know, what don’t you know, what do you really need to know?

ENGAGE who needs to be involved to help diagnose how to handle the situation and to create collaboration?

DIAGNOSE now better informed, what is the full current information and where do you need to get to - what is the vision for the solution state?

DO the action points you have identified and monitor impact. What new adaptive outcomes have emerged, what loose frameworks may help make people more adaptive?

Each of the facets of WICKEDD help shape what needs to be done to get to a fully-rounded action plan, and with agility in execution get control of a wicked issue.

In getting to solutions, a useful analogy is to regard tame issues as being like physics – once you know the rules (or laws in physics) then an outcome can be predicted with any intervention. Wicked issues are more like biology – life evolved according to the environment at the time, it continues to adapt and mutate, it has history as have wicked problems. Biology and wicked problems involve complex relationships that cause interactivity that is hard to anticipate, and biologists have determined tools and techniques that help them understand and predict evolutionary behaviour. Why can’t we use similar approaches with wicked issues?


The authors have elaborated on WICKEDD and how to think about overcoming wicked issues in our book Change Wisdom available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Find out more.

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