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“Wicked Problems” Are a Conundrum That Marketing Alone Can’t Solve

Gary Survis | June 26, 2020| 1 min. read

I have been a marketer for nearly 30 years and learned a few things along the way about my craft and marketing’s role in a business. One of my go-to sayings is that “everything ends up at marketing’s doorstep.” This is not meant as a pat on the back about the importance of marketing, rather, it is a statement of reality and borne out of my experience about how organizations work.

A core skill of high functioning marketers is communications and strategy. Crafting internal and external communications is expected of all marketing leaders and teams. It’s not unusual that it is marketing’s job to determine how to communicate a large new strategic partnership, devise recruiting messages or inform employees about internal decisions, along with supporting sales objectives and customer value propositions. So, when organizations grapple with unexpected challenges and unforeseen disruptions, marketing is called upon to make sense of the issues and develop the appropriate internal and external responses.

Given this, it is an understatement to say that marketing has worked in overdrive during the first six months of 2020! Faced first with COVID-19 and its unprecedented impact on nearly every vector of business and society, marketing moved quickly to change the arc of an organization’s marketing and communications to all constituents. Four months into this change, just as marketers are emerging from the chaos of the pandemic, society has reignited about the insidious issue of police brutality and racial inequality. Once again, businesses have scrambled to respond, looking to marketing to provide sage guidance and communications support.

I have spent the last few weeks speaking to marketing leaders across Insight Partners portfolio companies on the issue of crafting their business position and response to the complicated issue of racial injustice. The sense among our marketing leaders is that they are ill-prepared to give advice on such a complex, and difficult issue.  

This is because there is no one, simple answer. Racial inequality is a cogent example of what is called a “wicked problem”.

Some Background on "Wicked Problems"

In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber coined the term “wicked problem” to describe the type of issues we confront that defy specific definition and causality, and are stubbornly hard to solve. A 2008 Harvard Business Review article summarized Rittel and Webber’s 10 properties of a wicked problem, compared to an ordinary problem. 

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never ends.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgment. For example, although poverty is objectively bad, finding a solution is complex and no single option is true or false in terms of outcome.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness. It’s impossible to immediately determine if a solution is working. 
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone., any may cause unintended impact.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same way. A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. These problems don’t have one root cause
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders who will all have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.1

Several examples illustrate the intractability of wicked problems:  hunger, poverty, climate change, and of course the current issue at hand, racial inequality and social justice. These are hard, inscrutable issues that defy easy answers.  

Marketing’s role in helping to address the wicked problem of racial injustice

Business leaders are grappling with how to marshal resources to address racial injustice and they have turned to marketing to help find the right words. Logically, it is ridiculous that a simple marketing-led communication will sufficiently resolve the racial injustice challenges faced by an organization and society.

Despite this reality, our organizations and teams have asked marketers to provide a path. There are a multitude of well-researched recommendations for concrete actions to advance workplace racial justice, such as HBR’s 10 Commitments Companies Must Make to Advance Racial Justice and hence a marketing leader’s purview is not set up to solve this wicked problem. Rather, the CMOs job is to facilitate an organizational position and create a consistent, sustained communications cadence.  

There are five realities marketers need to understand to be effective in this situation.

Reality #1:  Listening must drive an organizational response to a wicked problem. I’ve heard one consistent piece of advice over the last few weeks: now is the time to listen. Marketers should first craft internal tactics and messages about an organization’s approach to listening. Each business will need to create honest, safe, and varied venues to promote conversation and listening. Many Black employees are grappling with emotions and thoughts and may feel conflicted or unable to communicate these to their teams. Many white workers want to do something, but do not know how and do not want to make errors. The many organizational stakeholders – employees, board members, customers, and investors - need time and the right venue, and to feel that when they have spoken, they have been heard. Marketing and HR can provide these venues.

Reality #2:  Wicked problems are not solved with an email, social post, or a press release. As we have seen in recent days, and comparable to the early days of COVID, marketers have put our an onslaught email communications stating their businesses position on diversity, equity and inclusion. Feeling the pressure to “have a position” on racial injustice, companies have checked the boxes for a response, marching down a path of well-worn social and PR posts. This rarely moves the ball forward and is superficial, especially if not backed up by action.

Reality #3:  The speed with which an organization responds to a wicked problem is not correlated to the substance of that response. Marketers believe they must move quickly to craft a strategy and language to respond to disruptive events. As defined above, despite the raw and immediate nature of the demonstrations, the truth is that wicked problems, like the one at hand, defy quick and easy responses. Given that wicked problem solutions are judged on the vector of good or bad, there is inherent risk in acting too quickly. Wicked problems demand a measured and well thought-out response – a process marketers need to embrace as they figure out the appropriate message, language, and company approach.

Reality #4:  No wicked problem is addressed without a leader. Every successful strategy and solution begins at the top. If a leader is perceived as inauthentic or to be “outsourcing” the response to marketing, both the leader’s impact and meaningful change will be minimal. When dealing with a wicked problem like racial injustice, marketing can certainly help craft language for a CEO, but in the end, it must be the CEO’s vision, thoughts, ideas, and passion that people internally and externally hear.

Reality #5: The response to a wicked problem should inform an organization’s core values. Business and environmental sustainability research has consistently shown that the only organizations to have made meaningful progress against sustainability initiatives are those for whom solving the issue has become a core corporate tenet. Social justice is no different. Now is a time when marketing can facilitate executive and company-wide conversations around the core values that the business sees as critical and authentic to the company. If company leadership truly want to solve this issue for their businesses, then they need to prioritize it and elevate it to be a core value. This is a decision each executive team needs to discuss; marketing’s role is to contribute a voice to the decision.  

Stark Reality:  We will make mistakes. Wicked problems are difficult. There are no solution playbooks and the interrelated nature of cause and effect make it all but impossible to avoid missteps. In today’s heightened emotional environment, expect that while you may not intend to inflame the situation, a tactic borne out of ignorance is no excuse. Marketing can be an integral member of the executive team to urge caution and explain the potential risks and ramifications of ill-conceived diversity, equity and inclusion policies. As always, if things devolve, marketing will play a critical role in crafting an approach to minimize their impact, own the mistake and learn from it.

Racial justice is the goal for society.  The current situation is a wicked problem that’s a product of history, legal structures, education, poverty, traditions, ignorance, hegemony, privilege and self-interest. No company, marketing message or tactic can solve these broad issues. Marketers are hardwired to develop plans, lay out milestones, and move rapidly to execute.  Wicked problems will resist this type of action and ill-conceived actions could create unintended consequences with the potential to harm people and the organization.

This is not to say that companies should not tackle racial injustice within their own four walls. Marketers have a central role to play in shaping a response and giving organizations a sustainable path to create an authentic company-wide position.  As we begin to address the issue of racial injustice in a  deeper manner than before, marketing can reinforce listening and organizational alignment, and ensure thoughtful internal and external communications. 

Source:  John C. Camillus, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review, May 2008

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