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Thought leadership, insights, and success stories

Wicked Problems: How to Recognise and Approach Them


Working on our key industry points of failure (our problems) is really hard, and before you even start it is important to appreciate that most of the really big problems can’t be completely resolved. Because they are complex, no one has solved them before you and therefore there is no available playbook that is going to help you.

If your job is about solving big problems, then it is important you first understand the three main types – your diagnosis of the very nature of your problem drives how you work on it.

Is your problem Critical, Tame or Wicked?

Critical problems are immediate

Examples of Critical problems  you may be familiar with include a website crashing or a similar technical emergency. This type of problem is short-term in nature and there’s no time for detailed analysis. You need a subject matter expert in charge of fixing it and the required leadership style is authoritarian: command-and-control. Disciplined follow-ship by all others involved is necessary.

Tame problems have standard operating procedures

Tame problems are more complicated in nature and are fairly common. Consequently, others have already solved them and established standard operating procedures you can follow. An example from the insurance industry is developing a product suite. Tame problems are not complex but are complicated because they have many moving parts. For Tame problems, a collaborative leadership style is needed; sharing information and resources as well as delegation are key.

Wicked problems are messy and complex

Wicked problems are unique (they have never been solved before) and are messy, complex and really, really difficult, if not impossible to completely solve. However there can be huge value in reducing the effect of them. The approach is therefore one of taking bites out of the problem.

One of our industry’s Wicked problems is the life insurance protection gap. There is no standard operating procedure for working on this problem and partial-solutions will be many, varied and intertwined. To tackle this Wicked problem, the approach is one of developing ‘clumsy’ [imperfect] ideas and testing the impact of them, refining improving as you go. The leadership style required is one of curiosity, asking questions, not following rules (Tame) or shouting orders (Critical).

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Adapting your behaviour based on the problem at hand

And here is where it gets interesting: most people have never thought of problems as falling into three categories and for that reason do not adjust their behaviour and leadership styles to match them. Many senior managers in insurance companies are simply not comfortable with Wicked problems. They are used to being presented with answers or having all the answers themselves, instead of focusing and testing with questions such as “what if?”

In my experience, managers can lose their team’s respect through their leadership or lack of leadership behaviours when facing problems. To avoid these pitfalls, diagnosing the nature of the problem you encounter will help you adapt your response, the management style you employ and therefore the response you get from others.

Critical – a time for answers not questions

Tame – collaborate and follow the process

Wicked – there are no answers or accepted process – ‘clumsy’ is the way forward.

Leaders should spend more time on Wicked problems

Focusing on Critical and Tame problems are where most insurance executives spend their time, but Wicked problems present a tremendous business opportunity. Consider spending more of your time on them.

At a glance: Critical, Tame and Wicked problems


Misdiagnosis will result in mismanagement

Misdiagnosing of the problems you are facing can lead to a mismatch of the leadership style you employ. The following flowchart can help you with your diagnosis:

Find out if you have a Critical, Tame and Wicked problem


Have a Wicked problem? Here are Next Steps 

To unlock a Wicked problem, you will need to be creative. Specifically, I recommend tapping into two techniques developed for other industries: design thinking and sprint methodology. With these techniques your team can clearly articulate the problem you want to work on and identify a long-term goal or goals. They can then develop rapid responses or partial solutions and test them quickly to gain productive insights.

It is important not to fall into tried, tested and failed processes such as brainstorming.


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Brainstorming does not work

Chances are that your organization has used and been disappointed with brainstorming.

All available research points to brainstorming’s failure. Instead, the supporting data illustrates that

  • Large teams generate fewer ideas when brainstorming [orally].
  • The number of ideas per person declines as group size increases.

In comparison, design sprints solve the problems of brainstorming.


Design sprints develop and test solutions to Wicked problems

When you have a Wicked problem, design sprints enable you to develop and test solutions rapidly in a collaborative environment. They remove the barriers associated with brainstorming and enable you to make progress towards tackling what can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

If you are not sure where to start, RGAX developed Life Design Sprints to help move you through the process.

Life Design Sprints unpacked:

Life: Address Wicked problems specific to the life and health insurance industry using design thinking and sprint methodology that has been adapted to the industry

Design: Employ the iterative processes of design thinking to develop and test solutions for your organization.

Sprints: Develop and test solutions rapidly by using short, focused days of sprinting, a format used heavily and proven to be successful in the technology industry.

Life Design Sprints are focused sessions employing multi-disciplinary participants to work on problem/solution designs, selecting the best elements of each to build prototypes and test them with real customers - all within three to five days.

Got a Wicked problem? 

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Written by: Richard Verdin

As RGAX's Shareholder Representative in EMEA, Richard oversees the growth of partnerships and investments in the region. This includes providing support on performance, strategy, alignment with RGAX and RGA, financial management, risk management, and regulatory matter.

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