Identifying Simple, Complex and Wicked Problems

By Marcus Coetzee, 24 September 2019.

I’ve been helping organizations to solve some very difficult problems over the past months. This got me reflecting on the different categories of problems that are confronting social enterprises and non-profit organizations, both within themselves and the communities they’re striving to serve.

In this article I’ll discuss the difference between Simple, Complex and Wicked Problems, and how to identify them. I will provide many real-life examples. Writing this article will also help me to clarify what’s been on my mind recently. 

Those of us who work in the social sector have an intuitive grasp of these problems.

A Simple Problem

A Simple Problem has a clear cause and effect that is easily identifiable and fixable. Here is a personal example that happened the other night:

Imagine you put food in the oven and then forget to set the timer. You leave it for too long and it burns. This was caused by you forgetting to check your food and see if it’s ready. The consequence is burned food, and perhaps needing to eat something different for supper.

Here’s an example of a Simple Problem at an organizational level, which we’ve all experienced. 

Your organization’s business proposal was turned down by a customer. You managed to investigate and find out why. Your proposal was too expensive. The consequence was your customer choosing to work with one of your competitors. This consequence was a direct result of the way the way your proposal was costed (and perhaps of the approach you have adopted.)

In both these examples, the solution is fairly straightforward: set a timer for your food in the oven, and put more care into understanding your customer’s needs and costing your proposal.

A Complex Problem

A Complex Problem has multiple causes. Some of these causes may be easy to identify, while other causes may be hidden. There may be causes that are consequences of other causes, much like the poor performance of a team member may be a consequence of their lack of skills, which itself is a consequence of the organization’s recruitment and induction processes. 

Solving these problems requires a deep understanding of the problem and a multi-faceted strategy, which is fine-tuned as it is implemented.

For example, I’m busy leading the marketing and PR strategy for a client. This is a complex task. There are many moving pieces that need to be understood and managed together. Here is a brief description of some of the challenges we’re facing:

A consulting company is striving to improve its capability to market itself and build its brand. It needs to develop the culture of expressing itself and responding quickly to such opportunities. Staff need to acquire news skills (e.g. copywriting, participating in media interviews), new technology must be used (e.g. content management systems, social media), and certain organizational processes need to be developed or redesigned. Some change management is required as the organization develops new habits and overcomes inertia. Furthermore, there are multiple stakeholders that must be managed, including website designers, PR firms, academic partners etc.

Complex Problems can also occur at a community level. Most non-profit organizations and social enterprises are familiar with these types of problems. A good example is how Steps Charity is tackling the problem of clubfoot in Southern Africa:

Steps Charity has helped cure 8,500+ children in Southern Africa of clubfoot. Solving this problem has been very complex. Steps needs to ensure that mothers recognize clubfoot in their children and bring them to the clinic for treatment. They need to cultivate a network of clinics that can provide the Ponseti treatment – a gentle manipulation and progressive casting technique. These clinics must have sufficient equipment and trained personnel. They must ensure that mothers are able to travel with their children to a clinic that can provide the treatment. They must ensure that mothers are supported throughout the treatment process. They must ensure that the treatment is integrated into government health systems, the stigma of clubfoot is dealt with, and so on.

When dealing with Complex Problems, we need to become skilled at separating problems from symptoms. This enables us to invest our efforts in the right areas. 

I’ve touched this concept in my article about charity versus philanthropy, where I suggested that charity is focused on the relief of suffering, whereas philanthropy was focused on solving the underlying problem. 

A Wicked Problem

A Wicked Problem, much like a Complex Problem, has multiple causes. Some causes are known and some causes are hidden. But in my mind, there is one significant difference. The symptoms of the problem have also become causes of the problem. This makes them significantly more difficult to understand and solve. Wicked Problems are spirals where any wrong or mistimed solution makes the problem worse. 

Those who play computer games may use the term “death spiral” to describe a deteriorating Wicked Problem.

Rittel and Webber formulated the concept of Wicked Problems in 1973 when thinking about complexities of designing and implementing social policy. After reviewing this paper, the following insights about these problems stand out:

  • Difficult to define the problem.
  • Difficult to know when the problem has been solved. It might even be impossible to ever permanently solve the problem.
  • No clear right or wrong solutions.
  • Difficult to learn from previous success to solve the problem.
  • Each problem is unique, so previous or similar attempts to solve the problem may not work in this context.
  • There are too many possible solutions to list and properly compare with each other in a rational manner.

Example at an organizational level:

A few years ago, I did some work for a non-profit organization that had poor bargaining power with its customers and donors. It frequently entered into contracts to get funding to do work that required more money than they were receiving. This created predictable cash flow problems, which meant that they needed to offer new customers and donors even “sweeter deals”, which paid for fewer overheads and so on. As this cycle continued, this organization could pay fewer salaries and remaining staff felt very burned out. Its quality of work and reputation started to become under threat, which changed perceptions of its brand amongst its stakeholders, which put even more pressure on the organization to perform. Key staff started to leave, which further weakened the team, thereby exacerbating the crisis. It became very difficult to tell where to intervene to fix the problem.

Example at a community level I’m helping an organization to make sense of:

A community trust in the Northern Cape owns shares in an iron mine. It must use its the dividends it receives to strengthen the community and ensure that it is in a better place when the mine closes in 10 years’ time. The communities it serves are experiencing high levels of unemployment, poverty and distrust. In this context, problems such as gangsterism, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, school dropouts etc. are running rife. There are multiple stakeholders (e.g. mining companies, non-profits, government, political parties) that try to fix this problem, but they all have their own agendas and constraints. This community trust has learned that symptoms are causes, and causes create symptoms. Poverty is associated with teenage pregnancy, and teenage pregnancy and school dropouts is a contributor to poverty. A lack of schooling and tertiary qualifications influences the ability of young people to get decent work, and provide for their families which creates more poverty, which affects the political landscape and so on. 

I could easily elaborate further, but I think you’ve got a good sense of this Wicked Problem.

Tackling real causes of problems

The need to understand the various problems, and associated causes and symptoms becomes much more necessary, and infinitely more difficult when dealing with Complex and Wicked Problems. Sometimes, the solution to a symptom may make the problem much worse. Let me give a simplistic example:

Assume someone has a stomach ache. Giving them pain pills may help relieve the pain, unless the stomach ache is caused by the prolonged use of these same pain pills. In this case, it would make the problem much worse, perhaps leading to demand for stronger pain pills, and so on.

I can also think of examples of the danger of addressing symptoms and not problems in a programmatic level:

High rates of teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases exist in many communities throughout South Africa. This problem is caused by many factors, including a lack of knowledge, unsafe sexual practices, poor role-models, economic pressures, lack of after-school activities and teenagers not seeing a good future for themselves.

Several non-profit organizations are openly discussing this taboo topic with teenagers and informing them about sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex practices. Many have been successful in alleviating the problem we’ve just discussed amongst their beneficiaries.

However, there exists the view amongst some parents, teachers and policy-makers that talking about sex and teaching teenagers about it, will rather increase sexual activity – it would also be immoral and lead to the outcome we’re trying to prevent. They propose a commitment to abstinence until marriage and a reduction in conversations about sex. Unfortunately, several universities have conducted research on this subject and proven that interventions designed by this second group have been ineffective in achieving their intended outcome. 

As you can see from this example, if the causes and symptoms of a problem are misunderstood, it becomes very difficult to fix it. Sometimes, an inappropriate solution may even make the problem worse.


I think it’s wise to identify the nature of the problem that we’re facing, either in our organizations or in the communities we’re serving.

Believing that a Wicked Problem is merely a Complex Problem, or believing that a Complex Problem is a Simple Problem, would mean that we fail to grasp its full complexity. 

This presents the risk that our solution is short-sighted and fails to resolve the problem. Such a solution may either contribute to the problem cycle or exacerbate it. 

Solving Complex and Wicked Problems is an integral part of our work in this sector. It is challenging and difficult, but rewarding and very much needed by the beneficiaries we serve.

Thanks to Andy Simpson (Imani Development) and Philip Anastasiadis for their insightful contributions to this article, and to Brendan Quinlivan for the artwork.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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