Can a McKinsey mind tame a wicked problem?

From our first homemade web site, Social Dimensions has boasted that we took on wicked problems.  Recently, stimulated by discussions with social researcher Duncan Rintoul from University of Wollongong, I have thought more about addressing wicked problems faced by social services and community organisations. 

In my last blog Entering the McKinsey Mind I bemoaned that the typical contract to evaluate a social service was unfocused.  By being comprehensive there was less time to identify and solve the most significant problems faced by the organisation.

Recent work on several projects has made me realise that sometimes the funding agency or the organisation cannot articulate the real problem.  This is not because they are stupid or lazy.  It is because they are facing problems so complex that they may not even be able to articulate them.  A business wants to sell more stuff or more services.  They worry about return on investment.  Concerns about their capacity, quality and reputation are all related to opportunities and barriers to returning a profit.  Many so called non-profits can benefit from that way of thinking to solve their “tame” problems.

However, the social sector also faces wicked problems.  What they are delivering is often a vaguely defined cluster of services and products.  There is little or no relevant evidence to inform whether doing x will result in y in their community.  Everyone from staff, to management, funders, recipients and general community has one or more views on what should be done and how.  Each of these groups sees their mission and context differently. Even if one party can articulate the problem, each other party is likely to express the core issue differently.

What is the consultant’s role?  Ideally the consultant can “translate” or “broker” the world views to each other, stressing points of commonality rather than difference.  The consultant might even be able to tailor solutions which are the least objectionable – rather than the most effective.  I am a big fan of using most significant change and positive deviance technics to focus on what has worked and how it was effective.  People are more likely to be motivated to work together for something that has worked than something which has never been tried. 

Peter calls me a Pollyanna but even at my most optimistic I can only claim about a 50% success rate in solving wicked problems through building a common vision around success.  One half isn’t bad odds for a wicked problem.   The success rate is not better because  in complex environments groups are reluctant to give up their positions.  The default positions for most parties entangled in a wicked problem is to continue to do what they have always done, despite clear evidence that it doesn’t work.  While that is sometimes called the definition of insanity, in the case of wicked problems it is perfectly sane.  In wicked problems groups blame other parties for the failures of the past.  They expect others to bear the responsibility of change because it is the other groups that are stopping their solutions from working.

Paraphrasing one friend’s observation “it is more fun to change someone else’s program than change your own”.

As enchanted as I am with the linear problem solving model practiced by McKinsey, the messy world of wicked problems is one that I love.

For a good read on recognising wicked policy problems, go to

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