In this blog, you will learn about integrative thinking and how to solve wicked problems in business using integrative thinking and design thinking. You will also know what wicked problems in business are, find 10 signs to identify wicked problems in business, discover what design thinking is and uncover the 4 stages of integrative thinking.

“Business is all about solving people’s problems – at a profit.”

—Paul Marsden

Any business leader will tell you that a sizeable amount of their time goes into solving problems and firefighting. In fact, it is often said that if you are not solving problems, you are not doing business.

However, life is not in black and white, and so is business problem-solving. Many problems in business do not come with simple choose-A-or-choose-B options. Business problems are often tricky, having multiple aspects. Some of these problems are often of the wicked type!

So, are there any models or methods that a CEO or any of their colleagues can use to solve wicked problems in business? Are there ways to understand and categorize problems in business? Is there any toolkit that we can make use of?

Let us find out how using a technique called integrative thinking together with design thinking, you can easily solve wicked problems in business. Before that, let us understand wicked problems in detail.

What are wicked problems in business?

The dictionary defines wicked as “playfully mischievous” or “extremely unpleasant”. Therefore, wicked problems would mean, “problems that pose themselves as being playfully mischievous or extremely unpleasant”. Wicked problems are not just tough or persistent, they are almost impossible to be resolved using traditional processes.

The term “wicked problem” was first introduced in 1973 by Berkeley professors Horst W J Rittel and Melvin M Webber in one of their articles. 

To understand wicked problems in general, we can take the example of issues like financial crises, environmental degradation, terrorism, healthcare, hunger, income disparity, obesity, poverty and sustainability. These problems are wicked because they may have innumerable causes. They are tough to describe easily. They do not have any one-size-fits-all or right answers.

Most business problems are resolved by identifying an issue, gathering data on it, studying all the options available and choosing the best strategy. But the wicked problems do not get resolved using these traditional linear processes. Wicked problems may require the creation of a new option that never existed.

Global corporate leaders like Wal-Mart and PPG Industries were able to resolve their issues of slower growth and ineffective strategies when they realized that they were facing wicked problems.

What are the 10 signs to identify wicked problems in business?

In their scholarly article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Rittel and Webber pointed out 10 signs that distinguished wicked problems from difficult but ordinary problems.

  • Inability to define

It is almost impossible to formulate a well-defined statement of a wicked problem. An ordinary problem, on the other hand, can be easily defined. For example, can people in every nation define the issues of climate change in the same way? The effects of climate change in different countries are different, and no single statement can define them.

  • Inability to reach a definite solution

Unlike ordinary problems, in the case of a wicked problem, the search for possible solutions never stops. You can never tell when you have reached a solution, just like when we can never know if we have reached a solution to corruption in public office. Every single case of corruption might require an entirely different solution.

  • No true-false solutions

Wicked problems do not have true-false or right-wrong solutions. Some solutions may be better in some way, while others may be better in some other way. Your judgement is the only guide to model a working solution. Take for example how NGOs in your locality use their judgement to find a solution to urban poverty in your locality.

  • Inability to measure the effectiveness of solutions

The solutions to ordinary problems can be tested conclusively for their effectiveness. But solutions to wicked problems may lead to unexpected consequences over a period of time. Imagine applying the same set of solutions that were effective ten years ago to the current problems of slum children’s education.

  • Impossibility to learn by trial and error

Every solution to a wicked problem is unique and may lead to irreversible consequences. Therefore, there is no possibility to learn by trial and error, unlike in the case of solutions to ordinary problems. Imagine the various steps taken so far by various governments across the world to fight the problem of black money.

  • No set of potential solutions

Unlike ordinary problems, wicked problems do not come with a limited set of permissible operations that may be implemented to obtain solutions. For example, there are no fixed number of options available to fight obesity. Handling obesity may require exercises, a change in lifestyle, a variation in food habits, an adjustment in eating timings, a modified diet chart and even some medicines. Yet, the results may vary from person to person and from situation to situation.

  • Absence of prior experience to solve wicked problems

Since every wicked problem is fundamentally unique, our past experience to handle problems does not help us to address it. An ordinary problem usually belongs to a class of similar problems. The solutions used by one country to handle environmental degradation in that country may not be applicable in another country.

  • Similarity in symptoms of one wicked problem with another

The symptoms of an ordinary problem are usually uniquely identifiable. But in the case of a wicked problem, some of the symptoms may be similar to another problem, making it difficult for problem-solvers to find possible solutions. The symptoms of obesity may look similar, but obesity due to medical disorders needs solutions that are different from obesity due to incorrect food habits.

  • Ambiguity in listing the causes of wicked problems

Different stakeholders of the same wicked problem may hold different views on the causes of a particular wicked problem, making it almost impossible to figure out a solution. Different finance gurus may cite different causes for the financial crisis of an individual. And therefore, they may offer different solutions to the same problems.

  • No room for error in planning

The problem-solvers of wicked problems usually have a huge responsibility to plan and execute solutions to these problems, since each action will have hitherto unknown consequences. For example, the researchers that created the COVID-19 vaccines had the responsibility of coming up with the correct solution in the very first attempt, as each wrong plan might have serious consequences.

Having discussed wicked problems and the 10 properties to identify them, let us now talk about their solutions in the form of integrative thinking together with design thinking.

What is integrative thinking?

“Modern leadership needs integrative thinking. Integrative thinkers embrace complexity, tolerate uncertainty and manage tension in searching for creative solutions to problems.”

—Roger Martin

Integrative thinking is often regarded as one of the best possible ways to counter wicked problems. Together with design thinking, integrative thinking if implemented in an organization has the potential to effectively deal with all the wicked problems.

We will discuss design thinking after we have described integrative thinking in detail.

According to Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and author of The Opposable Mind, integrative thinking is “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

Integrative thinking is the tendency and power to be able to build better models, instead of choosing from among available models. It focusses on model creation instead of model choosing.

Integrative thinking is often at odds with traditional disciplinary thinking that promotes rigid learning of various models to solve problems. An integrative thinker would rather be flexible to espouse complexity, endure uncertainty and manage tension in order to develop a new model based on various perspectives, available models and ground realities.

Before we move on to the section on how to solve wicked problems in business using integrative thinking, let us learn about design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is based on human-centred design and innovation that emphasizes empathy so that its problem solving is based on the needs of the customer or end user. It is a creative problem-solving toolkit that prioritizes customers’ needs and aspirations above everything else.

Please read what is the importance of design thinking? to learn about design thinking in detail. In fact, a CEO, who is also a design thinker, can ensure their organization’s customer lifetime value increases as well. You may also read 3 tips to grow business 10x using design thinking. Also, read how to increase customer lifetime value? to understand CLV in detail.

I would request you to spend some time reading the above resources and educating yourself on design thinking. This would help you to get the best from the section on how to solve wicked problems in business using integrative thinking and design thinking.


You can become an integrative thinker and will be in a position to solve wicked problems in business if you are aware of the following 4 stages of integrative thinking. These four stages are, however, not linear but iterative. So, in real-life situations the stages may be repeated and their order changed to get the best possible solutions to wicked problems.

  • Articulate the models

Defining a wicked problem may be challenging, but the first stage of integrative thinking requires that we make an attempt to articulate the models as clearly and thoroughly as we can. 

At this stage, we need to listen to the various stakeholders as well as the team members responsible for articulating the models and take into account all the possible or likely possible solutions. This stage is quite similar to the Empathize and Define phases of design thinking, about which you must have read in the previous section.

This is followed by the selection of the two extreme or opposing models/ideas, turning the wicked problem into a two-sided dilemma. This allows the problem-solving team to explore the fundamental tension between the two extreme ideas and discover the best possibilities.

For example, let us think about an NGO trying to find solutions to the problem of rapid, post-pandemic unemployment in the urban slums living in city X. The sudden unemployment has adversely affected the people, who are now unable to arrange two square meals and fund their children’s education.

In this stage, the suggested models of solutions ranged from funding the families who lost their jobs with a one-time grant of Rs 10,000 each, giving them free ration for three months and upskilling the adults for increasing their chances of employment to upskilling them to start their own business and giving them fresh jobs. Out of these, the problem-solvers chose funding the families who lost their jobs with a one-time relief of Rs 10,000 each and giving them fresh jobs as two opposing ideas.

  • Examine the models

This stage bears some similarities to the Ideate phase of the human-centric process of design thinking. The problem-solvers here consider the two extreme models, selected during the first stage, while keeping them side by side. They make an attempt to gather deep insights about these models. They examine how the opposing ideas together are similar and different and locate the tension between them.

There is no single right answer because the things one group values in the models may be different from the things another group values. Therefore, the aim should be to identify the various value propositions and come up with a range of possible “better worlds”.

In continuation of our example of the NGO trying to find solutions to the wicked problem of unemployment among the slums in city X, the problem-solvers would consider the two opposing ideas of funding the families who lost their jobs with a one-time grant of Rs 10,000 each and giving them fresh jobs side by side. Why is giving money the best option? Why is it not the best option? Why is providing jobs the best option? Why is it not the best option?

  • Explore new possibilities

This stage shifts from simply ideating and analyzing to actually creating a new model. This stage has a lot of similarities to the Prototype phase of design thinking.

Here, the problem-solvers remix the various ideas and building blocks collected during the second stage and redesign them with the goal of generating newer options. The aim is to articulate what each solution could be by considering those components from each of the models that the proponents would loath to give up.

The remixing and redesigning of ideas may be repeated unless a working solution is figured out.

In continuation of our example of unemployment among the slums in city X, the problem-solvers would now consider all the value propositions surrounding the two opposing ideas of funding the families who lost their jobs with a one-time grant of Rs 10,000 each and giving them fresh jobs to create a solution that works best in their interest. They might think of all other ideas in between these two opposing models to create a prototype solution. The solution might be a combination of all the ideas like providing them with a small one-time grant to give immediate relief from pending loans, giving them free ration for three months, upskilling one group for increasing their chances of employment, upskilling another group to start their own business and giving them fresh jobs.

  • Assess the prototypes

This final stage of integrative thinking is similar to the Testing phase of design thinking.

The aim in this stage is to test your prototype created in the previous stage on your internal customers in order to discard your solutions or improve them. Based on how your solutions were received by the test group, you may take any of the following three actions:

  • actually start implementing your solutions on the external customers because your solutions were received well by the test group,
  • iterate the integrative thinking stages one more time to improve your solutions because your solutions were only partially successful or
  • abandon the solutions completely because they failed to solve any problems of the test customers.

In continuation of our example of unemployment among the slums in city X, the problem-solvers would implement their solution on the target audience and document their progress. There is a strong chance that the solution will work. In case, it is found to be less effective, the NGO team might iterate the integrative thinking process to improve their solution. In case, the solution does not work at all, they might abort the relief work and try to collaborate with the government or any other successful NGO.

Integrative thinking is a great way to resolve one-off wicked problems. But without a design-thinking-based approach, there are chances that an organization may frequently come across wicked problems and may not have the right mindset and culture to find wicked problems and solve them. I consider integrative thinking and design thinking complementary to each other in ensuring an organization’s overall growth, productivity, employee engagement and customer retention.

With this, I come to the end of this blog article on how to solve wicked problems in business using integrative thinking and design thinking. What do you think about this? If you have come across new insights on how to solve wicked problems in business, do share your tips with our readers in the form of a comment in the “Add comment” section towards the bottom of this blog.

About the author, Ajay Aggarwal

A Haryanvi by origin, an entrepreneur at heart and a consultant by choice, that’s how Ajay likes to introduce himself! Ajay is the Founding Partner at Humane Design and Innovation Consulting (HDI). Before starting HDI, Ajay founded the Design Thinking and Innovation practice at KPMG India. His 16+ years of professional career spans across various roles in product and service design, conducting strategy workshops, storytelling and enabling an innovation culture. He has coached 50+ organizations and 2000+ professionals in institutionalizing design and innovation practices. He loves to blog and speak on topics related to Design Thinking, Innovation, Creativity, Storytelling, Customer Experience and Entrepreneurship. Ajay is passionate about learning, writing poems and visualizing future trends!
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