Managing COVID-19 as a Wicked Problem?

Do you have a Wicked Problem?

You might. We’ll return to the question—and what to do about it—in a bit.

First, let’s consider communication. There is no shortage of leadership advice on how to interact with and manage employees during the pandemic (Groysberg et al., 2021).

Let’s consider some of the more common insights for approaching communication during COVID.

Within an organization, communication should be direct, informal, more personal, and close in time to the actual events. It should not be top-down—and should demonstrate that everybody is sitting in, more or less, the same boat.

It’s also common sense to acknowledge that working in a remote environment is possible—but perhaps not yet perfected. No one can truly say what the future of working arrangements will be. It doesn’t hurt to be open about this.

Sure, there is a suspicion that the idea of working in an office building every day could be a thing of the past. The routine of dressing up, driving to work, and sharing a space with other employees was well-established before this pandemic (and after our last one, a century ago).

It’s also key to remember: Our office-centric mode of working came into being before we had the internet, social media, an expanding service economy, Gen Z, job-crafting and -hopping and, of course, our youngest generations of workers who are relatively new to the labor force.

Our awareness, culture, and styles of communication have changed dramatically since the establishment of our pre-pandemic status quo. Hence, it’s OK for leaders to give themselves permission to step back and ask just how an optimal work environment, leadership style—and resulting communications—should look in the “new normal,” even as it continues to take shape.

Managing a (constant) crisis

Still, there are broader questions to consider as we navigate these new waters.

Organizations need to rediscover the most effective and efficient processes, structures and responses for their particular workflow—as the pandemic eases, and in its aftermath. In other words: How can you most effectively continue to manage this ongoing crisis, now well into its second year?

First, consider how to define these issues on your own terms. This may not be easy or immediately self-evident; for example, exactly which stakeholders are involved in each consideration of how to best move forward?

Do you understand the exact causes of any current difficulties? Can you be sure if a decision you make will improve your situation?

If the answer to these questions and others is “no,” then you may have a Wicked Problem.

What’s Wicked?

It turns out that not every problem we encounter in real life can be clearly defined and solved by gathering data, breaking it down in tractable problems, using predictive modeling and optimization techniques.

This is a very important realization for managers that not all problems can be solved in conventional linear fashion.

Wicked problems are not just more complicated: They are tough to even describe, have many causes (including social complexities), are dynamic and nimble—and do not have a clear global solution.

Typical examples for these problems are terrorism, global warming, and poverty. In a nutshell, it is necessary to iterate the true nature of “wicked problems” frequently, as is done in agile project management.

The good news is that there are frameworks to address Wicked Problems such as the one used by PPG Industries which was described in a Harvard Business Review article by John Camillus (2008).

Framework to respond to Wicked Problems Adapted from Camillus (2008).

As you will see, the chart to the right shows that there is not one path to success or one clear solution; instead, there are ways to consistently improve a management approach, such as with your COVID-19 response.

It is important for organizations to embrace uncertainty, accept that not everything can be controlled, to use newly emerging information swiftly—and to evaluate outcomes of realistic scenarios with varying likelihoods.

Even among leaders, no one can perform complex tasks like this alone in an optimal manner.

Though we may be spending more time apart, on account of the pandemic—everyone, not only managers—should make a deliberate effort to work closer together and possibly give each other a break and the benefit of the doubt on occasion. This is part of the process of exploring a Wicked Problem.

The irony is that we must stay certain distances apart, physically, but we need each other clearly more than ever in order to be successful and to address the complex problems at hand—and those to come.


Groysberg, B., Abrahams, R., Connolly Baden, K. (21 APR 2021). The Pandemic Conversations That Leaders Need to Have Now. HBS Working Knowledge. Retrieved from:

Camillus, J. C. (2008). Strategy as a wicked problem. Harvard Business Review, 86(5), 98.

About Daemen College: 

Daemen College is a private, nonsectarian college in Amherst, N.Y., offering undergraduate and graduate level degrees. We encourage our students to be creative, innovative, ethically-minded leaders for an ever-changing, diverse, and interconnected world.

It starts right here with the intellectual strengths acquired through the liberal arts and the preparation necessary for professional excellence. Here, we create spaces for belonging and support students as they build their legacy.

Daemen encourages its students and alumni to move their dreams, vision, and values forward and to shape their community and make meaningful contributions to society. It all begins with higher education.


About the author:

Torsten Doering is the director of the MBA Program and associate professor in the Business Administration Department at Daemen College. He has twenty years of experience in responsible management positions in Europe and the U.S. in high-tech consulting, Fortune 500 and medical device companies.



Disclaimer: The above commentary entails the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.


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