On an everyday basis we deal with tough, complex, resilient, wicked problems, in which different interests are at stake and where actions may lead to unexpected and even undesirable consequences. These problems require our greatest effort: they are hard to manage, measure, control or predict.

Often we try to dumb these problems down. We tame them, we fake simplicity, we try to restrict ourselves to topics we understand and grasp, topics we can manage and keep under control. The unfortunate result is that the wicked problem remains intact, since nothing has been done to tackle it in all its complexity.

With this type of problems it is useless to fake simplicity. Trying to tame wicked problems may even result in the opposite and add to the complexity of the situation in many cases (Conklin, 2005; Vermaak, 2010). The question is: how can we explore, understand and deal with the complexity? Design thinking is focused on exactly this type of complex and often long-lasting issues and contains tools to deal with the complexity.

To illustrate the difference between simple and complex problems you can distinguish three domains: the domain of the possible (green), the probable (blue) and the desirable (red) (see figure, based on De Jong, 1992). Things that are probable, are also possible, per definition, so the domain of possibility contains the domain of probability. Part of what is possible or probable is also desirable, part is undesirable. This is why the domain of desirability only partially overlaps the other two domains.

Simple problems are located in domains 3 and 4: things that are probable and that we may assume will happen for real or are already happening. Domains 2 and 5 contain problems involving possibilities; not probabilities that we can predict and expect, but possibilities that we have to design for and create. Here we find the wicked problems: How do we make sure that desirable possibilities become reality and how do we tackle potential undesirabilities before they become real?

Often we are more familiar with simple problems, and we have many methods and techniques to solve these. But wicked problems are unpredictable, new and unknown, so we cannot use these same methods and techniques. Simple problems are questions like how to realize or prevent an outcome that is already probable, depending on whether it’s desirable or not. Wicked problems on the other hand are about creating new possibilities, making this the area where radical innovations can emerge.

Underlying our methods and techniques for simple problems there are assumptions about a predictable and controllable world. We act like the world, or at least that part of the world we want to deal with, behaves according to our expectations. These assumptions do not hold when dealing with wicked problems, since they are nor predictable, nor controllable and we don’t know what to expect. This is why they lie outside of the probable domain in figure 1. We need a different approach that gives us other tools to make sense of these problems and to deal with them. Design thinking is such an approach.

At the VUCA Academy and the Academy for Information & Management I teach and study the principles and practice of design thinking with participants in our programs. Based on almost 20 years of research and practical experience in working with design approaches in organizations we distinguish 4 phases that you go through iteratively when you are trying to tackle a wicked problem:

1) Experience & Empathy (Dutch: Voelbaar),

2) Explore & Expedition (Dutch: Denkbaar),

3) Experiment & Embody (Dutch: Maakbaar) and finally

4) Embed & Engage (Dutch: Haalbaar).

For every phase there is a methodological toolkit from which we choose the most suited tools for the problem at hand.