Social issues become increasingly complex as the world becomes more connected—the quantity of information and the accelerated transformation in the ever more globalized world. The rapid speed of change challenges our ability as humans to address the environment's complexity. The increase in complexity requires more acknowledgment across various communities.
Human societies and social issues are complex and difficult to understand nor resolve. Thus, it is essential to understand the entanglement of social matters' challenges and possibilities; such as leading diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) transformation. In my leadership course for sustainable change, I ran into a familiar concept that describes the complexity of leadership and management in the contexts of DEI. Over the last few decades, the notion of wicked problems has been used to describe and explain various intricate societal and organizational issues. These have often been related to social issues and social policy, such as social exclusion. The concept of wicked problems identifies ten essential characteristics to be aware of when resolving complex social issues. (Rittel & Webber 1973; Weber & Khademian 2008). Below you can find a table highlighting these ten characteristics.
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Different approaches to the problem see it differently. Other proposed solutions reflect the fact that it is defined differently.
2. There is a 'no stopping rule'. Unlike in an experiment where you can stop natural processes and control variables, you cannot step outside a wicked problem or prevent it from contemplating an approach to answering it. Things keep changing as policymakers are trying to formulate their answers.
3. Solutions are not true or false. There is no right answer, and no one is in the position to tell the correct answer. The many stakeholders focus on whether proposed solutions are ones they like from their point of view.
4. There is no test of whether a solution will work or has worked. After an answer is tried, the intervention's complex and unpredictable ramifications will change the context so that the problem is now different.
5. Every solution is a 'one-shot operation. There can be no gradual learning by trial and error because each intervention irreversibly changes the problem.
6. There is no comprehensive list of possible solutions.
7. Each wicked problem is unique so that it is hard to learn from previous issues because they were different in significant ways.
8. A wicked problem is itself a symptom of other issues. Incremental solutions run the risk of not addressing the underlying problem.
9. There is a choice about how to see the problem, but how we know the issue determines which type of solution we will apply.
10. Wicked societal problems affect real people, so one cannot conduct experiments to see what works without having tangible effects on people's lives.
The ten original characteristics of wicked problems (Rittel & Webber 1973)
”If someone claims to know a magic trick to solve them, they are most likely wrong.”
Almost all problems in our current socio-ecological systems, e.g., social matters, sustainability, inequality, etc. can be defined as wicked problems. This means that there are no easy solutions, and if someone claims to know a magic trick to solve them, they are most likely wrong.
The recognition of wicked problems also means that the decision-makers are not necessarily inefficient if issues have not been solved – they are ultimately unsolvable. This does not mean we should lose hope, but it means learning to live and cope with wicked problems. They need constant attention, monitoring, management, and solution attempts, and this work needs to be collaborative and interdisciplinary. There are no definitive resolutions or outcomes; they seem to follow some pattern yet remain unpredictable. Dealing with complex, wicked problems is about the practice of understanding and managing ambiguity. When managing problem wickedness in health and social care, the focus should be on networks and collaborative governance rather than hierarchies and authoritarian leadership. Different kinds of wicked problems require different types of responses. Wicked problems are virtually a never-ending process. Thus, we should start work now.
DEI requires constant attention, monitoring, management, and solution attempts, and this work needs to be collaborative and interdisciplinary.
I hope that after reading this article, we can all accept our lack of knowledge and understand that addressing DEI in the business environment requires the adoption of a complex and unique approach designed through an adaptive process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation. Hence, let's create a collaborative effort to discover the opportunities in diversity, equity, and inclusion in your operation context together with a holistic mindset of creating something unique and daring.
Addressing DEI in the business environment requires the adoption of a complex and unique approach designed through an adaptive process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation.
Rittel, H. W. J. & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.
Xiang, W. N. (2013). Working with wicked problems in socio-ecological systems: Awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. Landscape and Urban Planning, (110), 1–4.
Raisio, H., Puustinen, A., & Vartiainen, P., (2018). The Concept of wicked problems: improving the understanding of managing problem wickedness in health and social care. In: Thomas, W., Hujala, A., Laulainen, S., & McMurray, R., (eds). The Management of Wicked Problems in Health and Social Care. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315102597