Wicked problems have been around “forever” but have come to the fore a couple of decades ago as pointed out by a 2008 HBR (Harvard Business Review) magazine in an article by John C. Camillus[1]; wicked problems appear in “increasingly complex environments” that “traditional processes can’t resolve,” because they have “innumerable causes” with no right answers due to undesirable consequences of both problems and solutions. Wicked problems often happen when organizations have too many changes and never-before-seen challenges or stakeholders staunchly disagree or social complexities are too hard to manage or there is high discord, even severe poverty and a collapse of environments or possible terrorism. Consider countries like Lebanon or India today.

Briefly, wicked problems are unresolvable situations in which causes are indiscernible and solutions seemingly unachievable. We see the consequences but don’t see what to do and how to do it. This is what Kees Dorst[2] (2015) describes in his book Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design.  Technology Innovation Management Review presents Dorst’s own explanation of frame creation and frame innovation design in pdf format that gives his easiest, understandable presentations – https://www.timreview.ca/sites/default/files/article_PDF/Dorst_TIMReview_August2018.pdf.[3]

Dorst presents wicked problems in the context of today’s open, complex, dynamic, and networked problems that are in the arenas of complexity theory, systems thinking, and ecosystems, all overwhelming today’s businesses with intertwined and overlapping networksHe suggests that the approach is through abductive reasoning, starting with the consequences of the complex problem and working abductively through his nine-step process.

To carefully approach complex problem situations, we need to analyze them to understand how they have been framed and explore alternative framings that might lead to very different types of solutions. … Key to the creation of new frames is thinking around the problem situation rather than confronting it head-on (Technology Innovation Management Review – p. 61).

By this, Dorst means that organizations struggling with modern “open, complex, dynamic, and networked problems” must become agile and flexible in responding to confusing consequential problems by using “trans-disciplinary innovation” – cutting across disciplinary fields, “using a design-based approach to trans-disciplinary thinking to create a framework for mixing practices, articulating new insights, and creating new possibilities for action in the space between professions.” This is done by adaption as Dort explains from Max-Neef[4]:

When core principles are transposed to other fields by practitioners abstracting from everyday design practices and connecting these fundamentals to the corresponding needs in the target field, the actor must delve much more deeply into the practices, and adapt this understanding to the new use context.

Dorst’s frame creation is outlined in his nine-step process of framing.

Central to the frame-creation process is the fifth step, where the analysis of the values of the broader field of stakeholders in the fourth step leads to a set of themes, from which new frames can be created by linking to practices from other professional fields. The first four steps lay the groundwork; the latter steps explore the implications of the potential frames and proposed solution directions (Technology Innovation Management Review – p. 61).

These steps are layers so that they present the Why, What, and How of the process. The top layer sets out the value being set out to achieve; the second layer describes the principles and strategies to achieve the values; the third layer is tactical and described the “How” methodology; the fourth layer is actional part of the “What.”  A frame is the statement that ties the top two layers, value and principle; the next frame is the “How” of methods and tools, while the fourth frame is the “What” of actions.

By way of summary of this complex process of framing, a thought from Technology Innovation Management Review (p. 61) seems appropriate to close this blog.

In design abduction, the practitioner enters into a thoughtful exploration by (repeatedly) proposing a framing of the problem situation, observes what possible solution directions emerge from these framings, and then reflects on the fruitfulness of their actions (is this going in the right direction?). In this way, the practitioner can navigate the complexity of the situation and “learn their way” to-wards a solution. In this process, assumptions, as well as established ways of working, are continually questioned.

Take away: If wicked problems are becoming more challenging in modern corporate design thinking attempts for solution, then frame creation through abductive thinking is an essential methodology.


[1] Camillus, John C., (2008) Strategy as a Wicked Problem – https://hbr.org/2008/05/strategy-as-a-wicked-problem
[2] Dorst, Kees, (2015); Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design, MIT, Cambridge, MA
[3] https://www.timreview.ca/sites/default/files/article_PDF/Dorst_TIMReview_August2018.pdf.
[4] Max-Neef, Manfred A. (2005); Foundations of Transdisciplinarity, Ecological Economics 53. No. 1 (April 1, 2005)

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