In this blog post, you will explore the concepts of integrative thinking and design thinking, and how they can be applied to solve complex and challenging problems in the business world. We’ll also delve into the idea of wicked problems in business and understand why they require unconventional approaches for resolution.

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

Any business leader will tell you that a significant portion of their time is dedicated to problem-solving and firefighting, especially when it comes to integrative thinking. In fact, it’s often said that problem-solving is at the core of doing business.

However, the reality of business problem-solving is not straightforward; it’s more like a complex puzzle. Many business issues don’t have simple A-or-B solutions. These are often referred to as “wicked problems”!

So, are there models or methods that CEOs or their colleagues can use to tackle wicked problems in business? Is there a way to categorize and understand these complex issues? Is there a toolkit available for such challenges? Let’s explore how the combination of integrative thinking and design thinking can help you effectively address wicked problems in business. But first, let’s gain a deeper understanding of what wicked problems are in detail.

What are wicked problems in business?

The term “wicked problem” was coined by Berkeley professors Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973. These problems are far from ordinary; they are exceptionally challenging to solve using traditional methods.

To grasp the concept of wicked problems, consider issues like financial crises, environmental degradation, terrorism, healthcare, hunger, income inequality, obesity, poverty, and sustainability. These problems are considered wicked because they can have countless causes, resist easy definition, lack one-size-fits-all solutions, and defy straightforward measurements of effectiveness. Solving them often necessitates entirely new, innovative approaches.

While most business problems are resolved by identifying issues, gathering data, exploring options, and selecting the best strategy, wicked problems don’t adhere to this linear process. They often require the creation of entirely novel solutions. Corporate giants like Wal-Mart and PPG Industries had to employ innovative thinking to tackle their wicked problems of slowing growth and ineffective strategies.

Exploring Integrative Thinking and Design Solutions for Wicked Problems in Business

In their scholarly article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Rittel and Webber outlined ten signs that set wicked problems apart from ordinary ones:

  1. Inability to Define: Wicked problems defy well-defined statements. For example, can people across different nations define climate change issues in the same way when its effects vary?
  2. Inability to Reach a Definite Solution: The search for solutions to wicked problems is ongoing, with no clear endpoint. Unlike ordinary problems, where solutions are attainable, wicked problems remain elusive.
  3. No True-False Solutions: There are no right or wrong answers to wicked problems. Solutions vary in terms of effectiveness, and judgment is the primary guide.
  4. Inability to Measure Effectiveness: Unlike ordinary problems with measurable outcomes, wicked problem solutions may lead to unexpected consequences over time.
  5. Impossibility to Learn by Trial and Error: Wicked problems don’t allow for trial and error learning because each solution is unique and irreversible.
  6. No Set of Potential Solutions: Unlike ordinary problems, wicked problems lack a limited set of permissible operations to obtain solutions.
  7. Absence of Prior Experience: Past problem-solving experience is often irrelevant when dealing with wicked problems because each is fundamentally unique.
  8. Similar Symptoms: Symptoms of wicked problems can resemble those of other problems, making it challenging to find appropriate solutions.
  9. Ambiguity in Listing Causes: Stakeholders may have different views on the causes of a wicked problem, making a consensus solution difficult to reach.
  10. No Room for Error in Planning: Problem-solvers of wicked problems must carefully plan and execute solutions due to potential unforeseen 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 focuses 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-centered 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 your business 10x using design thinking. Also, read how to increase customer lifetime value? to understand CLV in detail.

I would request you 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.


integrative-thinking-to-solve-wicked-problems-in-buinessYou 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 a free ration for three months, and upskilling the adults to increase their chances of employment to upskilling them to start their own business and giving them fresh jobs. Out of these, the problem-solvers chose to fund the families who lost their jobs with a one-time relief of Rs 10,000 each and give 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 since different groups may have different values. The goal is to identify various value propositions and create a range of potential ‘better worlds.’ In the case of the NGO addressing unemployment in city X, they must weigh two opposing ideas: providing a one-time grant of Rs 10,000 to families who lost their jobs or finding them new jobs. Why is giving money the best option? And why is it not the best option? Similarly, why is providing jobs the best option? And why is it not the best choice?

  • 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 loathe 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 a free ration for three months, upskilling one group to increase 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 of 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. Depending on the reception of your solutions by the test group, you have three possible courses of action:

  • you can proceed to implement your solutions for external customers if they are well-received 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 our previous discussion on city X slum unemployment, we’ll now see how our team acts on their solution and monitors progress. If it falls short, we’ll employ iterative thinking and consider partnering with the government or other NGOs.

Integrative thinking serves as a powerful tool for addressing complex, one-of-a-kind issues. However, to consistently navigate such wicked problems, organizations must also adopt a design-thinking-based approach. This combination of integrative thinking and design thinking complements one another, fostering a mindset and culture within the organization that enables the identification and resolution of wicked problems. This approach contributes to the organization’s growth, enhances productivity, engages employees, and retains customers.

With this, we conclude our exploration of solving wicked problems in the business realm through integrative thinking and design thinking. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. If you’ve encountered new insights on tackling wicked problems in business, please share your tips with our readers by leaving a comment in the “Add comment” section at the bottom of this blog post. Your input is highly valued.

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 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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