Skip to Content
Author's profile photo Former Member

How wicked the problems can be for Design Thinking?

It is a common knowledge that Design Thinking is best applied to solve Wicked Problems for a likely disruptive innovation as an outcome. But such use is rarely seen in corporations just resulting to incremental innovations or nothing at all.

As in Wikipedia – “Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term “wicked” is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

The initial step in any problem solving context is to ‘understand and define the problem’, by which ‘half the battle is won’.  We solve many well defined business problems that many of us are familiar with or apply known methods to such problems and wait for spectacular outcomes.  Many apply Design Thinking to similar well defined problems (trivializing its purpose) and expect outstanding realizable solutions. 

Ex., How might we have a HTML 5 based design for a delightful web experience?  Sounds familiar? Is this wicked enough to solve by applying Design Thinking? You don’t need an AK47 to kill a mosquito!


How are Wicked Problems different?  Let’s see below some examples:

Well defined problem

Complex / Wicked Problem

How might we create an attractive private car buying experience for “modern” prospects?

How might we economically create an attractive private car buying experience for “modern” prospects without losing “conservative” customers?

How might we deliver goods to the crowded inner cities in the future?

How might we develop an eco-friendly mechanism to deliver goods to the crowded inner cities in the future where automobiles are not allowed?

How might we design and deliver a driverless car? (Technology Innovation)

How might we design and deliver an economical and hassle free car for specially challenged people (including who cannot see, hear and talk)? (Experience Innovation addressing Desirability, Viability and Feasibility?)

Practice of Design Thinking becomes more interesting when such Wicked Problems are dealt with.  The sheer abstraction and complexity of such problems that calls for multi-disciplinary skills with Designer’s mindset makes homogeneous skills inadequate.  Design Thinking practitioners like to transcend into that bubble to jive and come out with meaningful, relevant and sustainable solutions.

How much of this step of ‘understanding and defining’ the Wicked Problems is being practiced across different practitioners and coaches is open to debate, but having promised for quick results to stakeholders both internal and external, and with many other impediments, this might well be the truth.

There are some noticeable outcomes – net-new scalable products and solutions that did not exist before for which the starting point has been with the Wicked Problems of our customers. Great examples that I can think of are Strategic Freight Procurement and Strategic Freight Sales. (More on these two solutions can be had from my colleague PRANAV SAXENA).

It will be of great interest to watch the tenacity and resilience of Design Thinking practitioners unfettered by the problems, remain firm with undying spirit, and continue on their mission!

Follow Lucky @lakshmanps

Assigned Tags

      You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
      Author's profile photo Itzhak Shoshan
      Itzhak Shoshan

      IMHO - When the problem is not well defined,we stay in the research phase. We must agree on well defined problem in order to come up with valuable innovation

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author


      The matrix you sent is very useful and encapsulates the experiences of many in their innovation pursuit.  This matrix again is an answer to your statement as I interpret it.

      Basic Research need not always change an ill-defined problem to a well defined problem.  Basic research is required to get a handle of the problem space.  In DT this is the initial step and part of the process.  (If you recall the Services Web Store Design at Ra'anana, this step was carried out in the beginning of the workshop).  Here in the matrix, it reiterates the same.  All other quadrants either has a problem ill-defined or the domain ill-defined except the top-right one.  Here is where disruption and breakthrough innovations are possible.

      If you have chance to watch Clayton Christensen's  SAPPHIRE 2014 keynote it is very interesting to see how organizations deal with sustaining and disruptive innovations.


      Author's profile photo Itzhak Shoshan
      Itzhak Shoshan

      I understand it a bit differently.

      "Not well Defined" is not "ill-defined". It just to state that we don't enough information to well define and you could rename it to "broadly defined".