Simple, Complex & Wicked Problems

Why types of problems matter?


As leaders, we regularly have to stop teams or groups jumping to solution mode by asking them ‘what is the problem we are trying to solve’. However, how often do you stop and consider what type of problem are you trying to solve? Defining the problem is key to sustainably solving the issue. A strategic thinker will also ask what type of problem is this which can have a profound impact on the success, efficiency and outcome.
Problems can be categorised into three categories: simple, complex and wicked. The importance of asking this simple question allows us to solve the problem from the right mindset and apply the right approach and tools to solve the problem. This is applying strategic thinking to your every day work and life which is becoming increasingly complex.

Types of problems


Simple problems

Simple (tame) problems don’t necessarily mean easy problems. However, the problem and answer can be defined, has clear boundaries and a technical solution is often applied. The problem can often be solved by following policies and procedures. From safety to production to finance, you will deal with and manage ‘simple’ problems every day.


Complex problems

Complex problems have lots of elements and connections to consider. The problem is often entangled with other problems. A lot more people ‘own’ or contribute to the problem. Complex problems require a systems approach – solutions may not be where you expect to find them. There may be no single ‘best’ solution.



Examples may include managing water at Ok Tedi – it runs across the entire system and is critical from energy for processing, to potable water for the workforce and community, to river levels and shipping concentrate which impact sales and timing of cash flow.
Another example of a complex problem that many of us can relate to is raising a child. Each child is unique and we must understand her as an individual. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable but not sufficient. The next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one. Which points to another feature of complex problems — their outcomes remain highly uncertain. Yet we all know that it is possible to raise a child well even as the process is complex.


Wicked problems

Wicked problems are ‘wicked’ if they are complex, multi-faceted, dynamic, unbounded, contested and cannot be solved in any absolute sense.

  • If a problem involves many stakeholders with conflicting priorities; if its roots are tangled;
  • if it changes with every attempt to address it;
  • if you’ve never faced it before; and
  • if there’s no way to evaluate whether a remedy will work, chances are good that it’s wicked.

Prof. J Camillus ‘Strategy as a Wicked Problem’, Harvard Business Review, (May 2008, 99-106).
The challenge with wicked problems is that it can never be fully solved so the answer lays in lessening the issue and learning to move through the problem to potential scenarios or outcomes. The most present example of a wicked problem we all face right now is COVID-19.

Reduce the risk of problem – solution mismatch
Different problems require different skill sets:

  • Simple– classic technical problem-solving skills, project management.
  • Complex – systems thinking
  • Wicked – engagement, collaboration, flexibility, experimentation

Different problems define success differently

  • Simple – problem fixed
  • Complex –system understood and its functioning improved
  • Wicked – problem lessened, forward movement.

Activity 10 –  Considering simple, complex and wicked problems

Activity 11 – developing your 2022 Plan on a Page