Wicked problems: turning strategic management upside down

Charles McMillan (Professor of Strategic Management, Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada)
Jeffrey Overall (Assistant Professor, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Publication date: 18 January 2016



The purpose of this paper is to critique the existing decision-making models of organizational theory and the ability of strategic managers to address unconventional problems using these models. Strategic management models presume reasonable stability in the task environment and the organizational design features. However, complex problems, or wicked problems, are prolific in a global world. They change profoundly the nature of strategic management, where management faces a deep paradox – an environment of unprecedented interdependence, yet unpredictable forces of chaos and volatility, a landscape of wicked problems. In this paper, the authors address wicked problems within the context of strategic management.


The authors review and critique the organizational theory literature, namely, microeconomics, bounded rationality, organizational failure and the theory of creative destruction within the context of wicked problems.


The authors find that the contemporary models of strategic management are incapable of assisting managers in addressing the reality of wicked problems. They argue that organizational pathologies rest in executive action: pursuit of goals and objectives with a false sense of causation, feedback filters that exaggerate good news and restrict bad news and actions that give only token measures to correct faulty design decisions and faulty decision processes, including more emphasis on vertical channels than horizontal task interdependencies.


The authors conclude that wicked problem-solving is by temperament and time horizon, a multilayered, multitasked, organizational challenge, and requires fundamentally different mindsets for design and performance systems for senior executives. The study of wicked problems requires a new corporate mindset, new collaborative models to address them and new corporate processes and executive training tools who increasingly have to address them. This research is a first step toward extending our understanding of how to address the world of wicked problems.



McMillan, C. and Overall, J. (2016), "Wicked problems: turning strategic management upside down", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp. 34-43. https://doi.org/10.1108/JBS-11-2014-0129



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