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The complexity of wicked problems in large scale change

Sandra Waddock (Carroll School of Management, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA)
Greta M. Meszoely (Center for Business Complexity and Global Leadership, Sawyer School of Management, Suffolk University, Boston, MA, USA)
Steve Waddell (Networking Action, Boston, MA, USA)
Domenico Dentoni (Department of Social Sciences, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 12 October 2015




The purpose of this paper is to extend and elaborate the notion of successful organizational change to incorporate the concept of large system change (LSC), by developing a framework that brings together complexity and wicked problems theories to understand how individual organizations and change agents can better influence LSC.


This conceptual paper integrates wicked problems and complexity theories to understand and cope with large system initiatives from the perspective of change agents in organizations, and uses the case of the electricity system as an illustrative example for these concepts.


The paper provides implications for LSC and action steps for change agents in organizations, arguing that by understanding change initiatives through the lenses of complexity and wicked problems, change agents are likely to be more effective.

Research limitations/implications

The integration of complexity science and wicked problems underpins the development of a comprehensive framework for creating effective LSC solutions, however, these ideas still need to be grounded in practice and empirical research.

Practical implications

Using these ideas, change agents in organizations can enhance their influence and use the power of system dynamics to support positive action for sustainable change. This paper provides a foundation to help think through the cross-sectoral, inter-organizational, and change dynamics involved in LSC efforts needed to bring about a more sustainable, secure, and equitable world for all.

Social implications

The world greatly needs system change; however, there is limited theory on effective LSC. This paper hopes to contribute to understanding the ways in which the difficulties of such change can be harnessed to move in positive directions with minimal disruption and greatest effectiveness.


Theories of change management that position the organization in the context of a broader system and define its role in creating change do not yet articulate the nature of the problems at hand in relation to the large systems where they are embedded. This paper builds upon wicked problems and complexity theories to shed light on the role of change agents and organizations in effective transformational change.



The research on the electricity system referenced in this paper is supported financially by the ENEL Foundation’s project: Towards a New Sustainable Business Model for Energy Companies.


Waddock, S., Meszoely, G.M., Waddell, S. and Dentoni, D. (2015), "The complexity of wicked problems in large scale change", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 28 No. 6, pp. 993-1012.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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