Know the Difference Between Wicked and Tame Problems

Leadership Skills

Know the Difference Between Wicked and Tame Problems


Have you ever tried to solve a problem that defied you?

If so, it might have been a “wicked” problem and you might have been approaching it with a “tame” problem mindset.

To understand the difference between wicked and tame problems, consider that the typical approach to solving any problem is a linear process such as:

  1. identify the problem
  2. brainstorm alternative solutions
  3. select criteria for evaluating solutions
  4. evaluate solutions
  5. select best alternative
  6. apply the selected alternative to the problem

But what if you follow this type of process and no alternative satisfies the criteria? Or what if you apply your best solution to the problem and instead of solving it, the problem grows or mutates?

If so, you’ve probably been trying to solve a wicked problem with a thought process designed for tame problems.

A tame problem is one that can be solved by choosing and applying the correct algorithm.

For instance, suppose that you knew how to make strawberry shortcake for 6 people, but needed instead to make it for 60. Multiplying the ingredients and changing the logistics is a tame problem.

A wicked problem, however, is one for which there is no known algorithm to solve it. 

Examples include strategic planning, satisfying customers, transforming organizations, or protecting the environment.

A revealing characteristic of wicked problems is that the more you attempt a solution, the more it reveals itself to you.

Tame problem
Tame Problem-Solving Process
Wicked problem
Wicket Problem-Solving Process

It’s an iterative learning process between problem and solution. The problem grows and changes as you work on solving it.

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The advantage to tackling wicked problems is to know that there will likely be no complete solution. So don’t attempt to solve it. Instead, form a team to “design” the future.

Creative teams with diverse perspectives stand the best chance against wicked problems.

The team can address the problem from a number of perspectives simultaneously, and the members can dialog with each other about how the problem might respond to various attempts to solve it.

They can design a response to the problem that incorporates learning and anticipates growth and mutation of the problem.

Leaders who understand how to take 100% Responsibility for problems will be better prepared for addressing wicked problems.

Try This Exercise

Identify a problem that you have tried unsuccessfully to solve.

Figure out who can help you to examine all of the characteristics, features, and issues around the problem, and then design an approach that will acknowledge and honor the wicked nature of the problem as you attempt to deal with it.

Three people meeting wrestling with a wicked problem

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