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Engaging alternative cognitive pathways for taming wicked problems:

A case study


I present a model of ’engagement’ to explain how strategic decision makers use different concepts simultaneously to tame wicked problems in a modern business environment. Attention is placed on ’framing’ and ’reframing’ and how this can lead to the resolution of complex problems. I analyze a longitudinal case study of a transport logistics company, where a complex problem was framed through one set of concepts, reframed by another, and eventually tamed. I argue that strategic problem solving involves an engagement of different ideas and a process of reframing to tame wicked problems. Particular attention is paid to how the key actors interacted and how these interactions influenced ’engagement’. I conclude by relating this to modern European managers and the emergent problems they face.

Introduction: Framing strategic problems

In a recent article Kemper & Martin 17 pointed out that the emerging crises we face in a turbulent world bring forth the need for better services and infrastructure for the modern business. Strategists, especially those facing the aftermath of the European debt crisis and now facing a world filled with wicked problems, n As per the original ideas on ‘planning as a wicked problem’, 28,29 we still need newer skills and better infrastructure, but we also need better skills at managing complex problems in light of these issues. In particular we need a cognitive skill set that can adapt, frame and reframe strategic problems in the light of modern wicked problems.

In this paper I present a model of problem solving that argues that modern managers need conceptual skills that enable them to develop a ‘wicked problem solving’ capacity. I base this on the work of 12 and more recently, 16 who argued that problems are the result of interacting cognition bound to individual and corporate interpretative schemas. Research has shown that these interpretive schemas can be on political ambition, power relations and or on other related matters 1,11,22. Instead of supporting the arguments already established, I argue that in the modern environment, because of turbulence and disruptive ambiguity, actors need to develop skills in learning how to adapt and work with wicked problems. Using a single longitudinal case, I develop a model based on the assessment of alternatives as a change of cognitive engagement. The point of the case is to exemplify the need for management to develop skills of adaptability as it relates to complex problem solving. I argue that by learning this adaptability, managers can better appreciate the complexity they work in and develop skills that will enable them to cope with external and internal complexity. The following section introduces the ideas of framing and presents the basic shape of the model.

What is framing?

Framing was covered most successfully by 12, who presented it as ’ways of seeing’ the world and representing an interest. The frame is the sense-making device that shapes understanding of observed phenomena. There has also been a great deal of literature in other disciplines that has studied the meaning of framing and how it can best be applied in analytical frameworks 31. Typically, the Goffman view of a frame is linked to the context of an individual’s way of seeing things, as noted in the following quote:

To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described. 8

Framing is about the capturing of context as it relates to the way people and groups form ideas they find useful to believe in 26,34.

In recent management literature the coverage on framing has been limited to a broad perspective focusing on debates about models of rationality 22 and ways frames are used by political actors. The most recent offering which summarizes the contribution of framing to strategy is that of 16. Kaplan argued that personal opinions and political argument dominate strategy in what she termed ’framing contests’. She challenges the traditional models by arguing that ’cognitive effects have been ignored’, (p.729) and that framing is a meaning laden, politically driven, complex, interrelated process. This is a process that involves the intersecting of a variety of cognitive streams, the interaction of parties with different conceptual groundings of the problem and the eventual dominance of one representative frame over another.

These different frames are alternative representations of the problem that are drawn from different perspectives, namely those of the key actors who are involved in the making of strategy 6. This suggests that the key problem is the engineering of choice 21 between key actors during sense making in complex strategic environments. The interaction forms part of a wicked problem intertwined with various integrating models of politically charged cognition. The outcome of this process presents as cognitive templates used to shape the heuristics within specific environmental contexts (Nadkarni & Barr, 2008). Strategic actions follow on as heuristic patterns that filter through the decision making process and form patterns that are enacted 33.

These actions are at first arguments or the results of the interacting frames (mental models 14) dominated by a particular perspective. This level of interaction involves key stakeholders, interacting frames competing for attention 16 and the construction of a new frame that becomes the template for future action. The ownership of the problem means it may get ’buy-in’ from stakeholders and something will be done to see if the particular frame is likely to work. This frame acts as the dominant concept used to take actions and eventually reflect on and learn from outcomes through the constructs that result from the process 20.

Path finding as wicked problem solving

During the early phases of problem solving, identification of key issues is paramount 32. During this phase strategists are likely to begin trying out or engaging with different frames that can be used and, through a process of argument and framing contests 16, reach a point where a set of ideas is likely to be adopted. The idea and the subsequent heuristics drive future interactions between actors at the strategic level and the eventual plan that emerges from this discussion. This paper argues that this kind of framing process is an ’engagement’ of both ideas and situation, in which the practical end of strategy making brings forth an idea to test and develop. More importantly the interaction of actors around the idea leads to an engagement.

This process is represented below:


This process of engaging different frames is firstly cognitive, as problem solving and framing begin to structure the problem. As the problem is interpreted, actors eventually take actions that follow on from the interpretation. The interpretation becomes the actions people take as ‘problem solving’.

The same can be said for framing strategy. If it is a wicked problem, then it has no definable shape, and in the same way it has no clear picture and is not arrived at rationally 5 but through a variety of emotive human means. That is, it is not linear and could be open to more than one simple interpretation. This involves emotions and personal values, collective thought and actions, 2 different models of rationality, 4 moral choices 19 and the cognitive load associated with assessment of interrelationships between variables in complex problems 9. These problems also have a ’social chaining’ effect 10 in which solving them may result in simultaneous opportunities and challenges. This means we have many possible pathways and opportunities to frame the problem, not just a singular chain to analyse. As Fine 10 notes the interconnectedness of wicked problems gives the strategist a unique challenge. Solving the complex issue will create other problems that need attention. That is, one action may cause other problems to arise in the short to medium term.

Wicked strategic problem solving as cognitive engagement

Recent literature 16 has focused on ’framing contests’ as an explanation of why some ideas triumph over others. This paper will focus on framing and reframing during strategy making because it will help to shed light on how alternative frames play an important role in strategy making. In this paper I argue that strategy making is a process of cognitively engaging an idea (the frame) and considering opposing alternatives (reframing) at the same time. This is shown as Figure 2 below:


Any strategic decision contains an interaction space where the building of a conceptual frame (concept) is used to frame the terrain of the problem. This is where dominant frames are generated, new ideas come forward, power games are played and eventually one frame of reference 16 is chosen. From the choice of this frame, the heuristics form which eventually lead to the action or the final phase of engagement: putting the ideas to work. A strategic decision filters through the interaction space between strategic decision makers who frame the terrain. It is during this time that the strategic decision goes through a problem formulation phase, and a shared understanding can be reached is some circumstances 3,25,27.

This is called ’engagement’ because it can be thought of as a process of engaging alternative ideas creatively into a wicked problem by shifting through alternative concepts 13. The creative process of synthesis leads to new ideas being generated that help shape and structure wicked problems for the building of heuristics for managerial action. Through the following case study I demonstrate how a wicked problem was ‘tamed’ through the use of alternative concepts and how traction was gained. I then argue in the discussion that such skills need investigation and development in modern management environments.


The data in this project was collected through semi-structured interviews with 30 key staff from management, operational, administrative and technical backgrounds. In order to draw on a cross comparison 7,35 on the different stages of the decision making process, two rounds of interviews were conducted. Time 1 interviews were after a complex strategy was framed and Time 2 interviews were conducted after the outcome of the strategic decision. Case data was then compared, coded and structured to see how actors engaged and how this impacted the strategic decision making process. This research also takes the emerging ’practice’ view of strategy 15 that sees strategy as socially constructed and interpretive. This approach relies on contextual explanations in which key actors are engaged. We sampled staff from across the organisation in order to gain the widest possible view of the impact of strategic framing. This encompasses a wide variety of people from operational to strategic layers as shown in the table below:



Managers interviewed

John RobertsDespatch Manager
Matthew MichaelsProduction Manager
Samuel SmithProject Officer (Supply Chain)
Steve WhittakerStoreperson (Supply)
Colin GermainSupervisor
John LewisLogistics Officer
Ed StevesLogistics Officer
Andrew NewbeckerConstruction Engineer
Simon O’DonnellContracts Administrator
Joe NapolitiInventory
Fred NosamentoOperations Worker
Max FlaniganCommodities
Harry CallahanSupply Chain Officer
Mike SuthersBusiness Improvement Officer
Matt BenetarCommodities Facilitator
Tony O’ConnorOperations Worker
David StowerTechnical Worker
Mark RipsContract Administrator

Operational Managers and Managerial Support


Second-tier managers interviewed

Mike GoreSales
Charles BarkwayAccount Manager
Steve GoldsworthyTransport Manager
Ted OrginHR Manager
Peter PittManager Operations Planning
Rodney MackayOperations Planning
Tom FlynnSenior Assets Manager
Errol McTaggartManager
Allen MalcolmOperations Manager
Bill HunterGeneral Manager (Supply)
Frank PerettiManager (Inventory)
John ConnahanManager (Commodity Strategy)
Keiran BennetCommodity Facilitator
Immanuel StevensNetwork Access
Tony WilkinsNetwork Access
Steve BrockNetwork Access
Michelle RotoloneBusiness Process Manager
Dave FreemanProject Officer
Martin BicknellBusiness Solutions Manager
Mike OldfieldOperations Management
Geoff LawsonCommodity Manager
James HitchnerPerformance and Reporting
Steve GoodeOperations Planning
Max CollinsCommodity Analyst

Operational Staff


Technical staff interviewed

Steve MarksSenior Officer (Operations Level)
Charles WooleyGeneral Manager Property
Sam O’loughlinHuman Resources
Nick CarrManager Technology and Environment (Partner Organisation)
Peter Le CarrTechnology Management
Graham PearceTechnical Services
Tony WilkinsTechnical Services

To support the analysis of the case, several company documents were also used to capture the changes in planning. After the interviews were conducted, I followed Yin’s categorization strategy and placed important parts of the documents, interview data and other related documents into a matrix. The matrix contains evidences of the changes in cognition between Time 1 and Time 2. What follows is a discussion of the case followed by some initial findings and recommendations for future research.

Utilcom: A case study in taming a wicked problem by engaging it creatively

Utilcom (a pseudonym) is a large-scale non-government owned corporation (NGO) that provides essential utility services to Australian cities. Its core business is in the provision of transportation services to companies, passenger services and other related services to industry. Utilcom operates across Australia and has an employee base of approximately 13,000. Utilcom also operates as a consultant to other industries in the transportation business and has a world renowned reputation for supply chain management practices. The company turns over $2 billion (AUD) every year and is considered to be an international business with engagements across a variety of industries. This case study will focus on a supply chain operations running from its head office across Australia.

Wicked problem

In 2003, in spite of its international reputation, Utilcom was faced with a real problem of lagging behind competitors in terms of supply chain management. The general manager of the supply chain had genuine concerns about the company’s performance. Their competitors had started using smarter technologies in the supply chain and had reached a point where Utilcom was lagging behind. In fact, most of their competitors were using large-scale information systems to speed up their supply chain operations. Utilcom was using a legacy system from the 1980s that had many problems and was being excessively worked around 18. The management team were not seeing any process improvements and the supply chain was fast becoming a slow behemoth that operated very inefficiently. The core part of the problem, as he saw it, was not necessarily that the organization had not moved with the times, but that the supply chain management IT systems needed to be implemented to drive change. This points more to cultural problems than technical ones as the general manager below indicates:

… we are investing heavily into the development of ERP replacement system which is SAP 3. We are putting staff into that project so when it comes along we have had influence in shaping what modules are bought, and in those they have technologies and modules that handle supply chain capabilities. Also we will have a greater technology. I guess, culturally, we are trying to set up some way to create learning across the supply chain.—Bill (General Manager)

The idea, a familiar one in information systems literature, is to use the technical systems to increase supply chain efficiencies. At the time of the initial study, the supply chain operated as a series of silos with very little communication and information sharing taking place. The data also showed that operators in the supply chain had no clear definition of how it actually worked. In this unique way it was hoped that the technology would drive change and bring about a social reordering in the supply chain. This served two purposes: firstly, that change management could be driven along the supply chain through an information system and secondly, these changes would lead to a more modern supply chain that would be internationally competitive.

Initial framing: Technology as the way to efficiency

The strategic problem was initially framed around how the company ran its supply chain. It was decided that in order to obtain improvements in efficiency and leanness across the supply chain, the ERP would be rolled out to drive the supply chain towards more efficient practices. The main focus was on how to create a modern efficient ’learning’ supply chain through ERP technology. The initial concept map of the problem is shown below:


The initial engagement with the problem created a frame that could provide that improvement in the supply chain process. As shown above, the actors engaged with the problem under the assumption that the problem could begin to be solved by technology. There was a strong belief in the company, supported by senior management, that this kind of process-driven technology would actually feedback and enhance the supply chain, thereby making it more robust and competitive. It was also strongly believed that this would modernize and create a much more competitive footing for the company. However, from the interview data it was clear that the technology was seen as a driver, not as the change agent itself. It was felt that the technology was part of the overall plan to manage problems with the supply chain that had been created over a long period, issues mentioned earlier such as efficiency and lack of communication, for example. Some quotes from staff inside the corporation show the local concept held by most members of the supply chain operation:

It is the usual things like emails and memos and telephones and verbal [communication] and I have found is that the most useful is actual some form of verbal [communication] unless you want to get a technical point [of view] you want somebody to remember. You may also have to write it [down] so they have something to go back to. They go away from the conversation and they say what was I going to do? Oh yes I understand why I am doing that now so they may need some written backup. The other thing I have found is you try to give them a problem, a picture or graph or some visual representation of it is better than giving them a 16 page memo, with beautiful charts and tables.—Michael, Operations

Out of phone and email which is more useful. Email … The sooner we hear a response the better. More important to have it documented.—Ed Operational Level

The only interaction I have is with Supply, [Interviewee mentioned key operational staff] and that would be about the total because as I said we are a value adder to a specific middle part of the process. And of course Place X… We have contact with them on a daily basis. Either myself or members of my staff.—Malcolm, Management

I think that people I deal with both internally and externally I find very credible, reliable trustworthy. Certainly approachable. I suppose most of my interaction both internally and externally is over the phone or email so it will never have that face to face quality. But I think it works very well, what is there. I can’t be everywhere.—Mike, Sales

One of the main hopes that had come from the early stages of framing the problem was that the ERP system would develop better communications between members. These quotes are examples of how the people who were involved across the supply chain spoke with other workers, and did not really have a concept of their roles outside of their own jobs. The hope of the ERP system was to try to create a stable network of relationships across the supply chain, to enhance its speed and efficiency. A decision was therefore made to go ahead and implement the system. I checked back in two years after the initial framing process to see what decisions had changed and how this had impacted the overall ’engagement’ process.

Engaging an alternative frame: Convincing people to use the system as a means to create the mindset for efficiency

Two years later and the planned ’efficiency’ of the supply chain management system did not work out as planned. Instead of creating a robust supply chain, that was able to learn and communicate more effectively, the processes did not change all that much. In essence this meant they doubled:

We don’t have a process management methodology so we don’t really understand our business processes or the bits that add value. Therefore we don’t have … nor do we have standard data models, we don’t have a corporate data model, we don’t have data referencing. So even if we talk to each other, long before we get to talk to each other we don’t even know what our units of measure aren’t the same and neither our language around the same [concepts]. … our inventory is blowing out because of a language issue … so before we go anywhere in communication, we’ve got a couple of key issues, that we need to sort out structurally as a corporation. Bill (General Manager)

The manager in charge of processes articulated similar concerns:

We’ve got a software tool that can automate processes we haven’t used in the past two years because we don’t have one single process in the organization that we could automate. Our own process thinking is not there to use systems. It’s got to do with culture and it’s got to do with a lot of things. Michelle (Process Manager)

The implementation didn’t quite deliver the problem solving capacity it was supposed to. Part of problem, which harkens back to Rittell and Webbers’ 29 ideas about problem solving, is that the wrong part of the problem was initially defined. There was no room for the consideration of alternative concepts. At the time the dominant frame was that of an IT-driven change model. The outcome of that was a disaster for Utilcom.

Towards the end of the process we saw the development of some more serious thinking about what the problem was in the first place. It is probably fair to say that the initial framing of the problem as being related to improving learning and development across the supply chain was accurate. The main issue the managers faced was how to drive this kind of improvement in the present circumstances. The system was implemented, process change was negotiated and the overall plan for driving change was not achieved within the two years. After agreement was reached between actors about change still being needed, the team involved reframed the problem as a training and process issue and set about making some major changes. The problems that came out of the data are shown below:


Outcomes of first frame of the problem

GoalProcess for driving changeOutcome
To improve efficiencyReengineered processesWorkarounds still existed, processes doubled
To improve learning across the supply chainERP system and reengineered processesLearning didn’t improve and process knowledge became more convoluted
Leaner processesERP system, reengineered processesProcesses increased and value was not added
Enhanced CommunicationModules within ERP systemCommunication remained the same
Smarter supply chain (more robust)Reengineering, redesign of jobs and ERP systemSupply chain became less intelligent and massive blow outs were noticed in inventory and other areas

Once these issues surfaced, the team responsible for solving the problem had to come up with a different set of concepts to frame it. Reframing is about changing the concepts used to think differently about a problem. In Utilcom’s case the problem was more than likely based on the sound idea of having a robust supply chain. However, the execution of the problem solving part of the exercise revealed that the problem was deeper and more cultural than it was technical. For example, in the early phases of framing the problem, the team focused heavily on the concept of efficiency and improved performance and how technology could solve that problem for them. This was not really the issue. The issue could be found by looking at the problem from another conceptual lens.

During the phases of the reframing, the managers began to ask the question why the reengineering process, using the ERP, did not work. When the managers examined the training and integration process, they found that the ERP had not been integrated with the work processes and that key processes (as shown above) were not properly mapped. The company did not know where its value actually was. What is worse, they were left with a process that had not worked, resulting in an inventory budget blow-out.

During the reframing, an issue emerged which created a second component of the problem. The general manager had noticed that the corporation did not know where the value it generated came from. Moreover, they did not know which processes were creating value and which others weren’t. What they were left with was an information system that failed to integrate work well because they had no clear definition of what their processes were. This created tension between managers and the operational level staff. At the heart of this tension was the idea that management created one way of thinking and the people in the supply chain created another. This was typical of the organization’s history and the dealings between management and members of the supply chain.

However, the conflict that arose gave way to some creative problem solving 13 that led to the problem being reframed. Instead of seeing the problem as one where change was required, the present environment allowed the company to frame the problem as one where supply chain staff and management staff could work together to rebuild efficiency. A new frame of collaboration dissolved the conditions that caused the old lingering tensions to emerge. The key starting point for redefining this problem was looking at the reasons why supply chain people were avoiding the system and building workarounds. This took the problem from the management point of view and reframed it towards a more inclusive operational supply chain view:


The reframing involved the newer ideas of learning through the social systems in the supply chain and offering more decision support. The addition of the social system actually facilitated an understanding of the problem. Since the time of the reframing exercise, the company has gone through an extensive training program where the use of information systems is discussed in a non-threatening one-on-one training program with staff members. This had the impact of eventually recovering the inventory blow out, and convinced a great deal of the staff involved to take up the system and work with it in their day to day lives. It was also a successful exercise in so much as it created a voice for the supply chain members and relegated the technology to a support function where it probably should be. The model presented earlier will now be discussed in light of this reframing.

Discussion: Returning to the engagement model and implications for modern management

So in what way did key actors tame the wicked problem? Firstly, the strategic managers at Utilcom framed the problem in terms of driving change through IT. This led to the construction of useful heuristics, many and varied, that eventually filtered through to the actions taken. A very expensive information system was implemented with the hope of driving change. After this was undertaken the project was deemed a failure until ’reframing’ took place.

In this case study, Utilcom began the first parts of the model by being faced with a strategic decision. The weight of that decision forced them into action where a frame was placed over the wicked problem in order to tame it. This initial process of ’framing’ is often argued in the literature to present the strategist with options and help them in making sense of a problem. The problem here is that, as Kaplan 16 notes, actors respond to the external environment through the perceptions and interpretations they have of it. If that perception is limited or underdeveloped, it could be flawed and lead to an inappropriate direction. In this case some of the participants were involved in a reframing exercise which changed how the problem was engaged and what possible actions were available. By engaging in meaningful alternative framings, the problem eventually became manageable.

Wicked problems can be thought of as needing many concepts 23 to tame them, and a recognition of interconnections leading to alternative ways of framing the problem. In this case the reframing opened up a completely different line of inquiry. It still used elements of the first framing but took a completely different ’social angle’ after it was revealed through analysis that actors did not see or could not ‘frame’ the value of the system. This led to some positive changes at the organization and a ’taming’ of the wicked problem to some extent. The taming process happened because the management team were willing to entertain different ideas after a badly implemented system caused them the wicked problems of duplicate problems, non-robust processes and an increasing reliance on feral information systems. Therefore, we need to further explore and study how to respond to wicked problems in management, if we are to survive in the modern world.

Looking at recent economic problems and their complexity, one is left wondering what a manager would do about problems like plummeting car sales1 or the fact that Japan is now buying European bonds to help the economy recover2. Existing plans are unlikely to work because they are rooted in the very thinking that caused the crisis to emerge in the first place. Completely new thinking is required. The fact of the matter is they have to come up with strategic responses to these wicked problems. This must rely on their ability to think creatively and learn to create opportunities in the midst of wicked problems, even if any action taken may be a one-shot operation. If they fail to do so, there is a very real possibility that situations like the above mentioned may overwhelm the world’s economy.

For these reasons there needs to be more research into the pragmatic aspects of managing wicked problem environments. In particular there is a genuine lack in the literature of empirical case studies and other types of work showing the academic community how such problems are effectively managed and tamed. How do big companies manage issues such as the downturn of sales in the car market? Do they reframe? If so, how? There is a wealth of literature in operations research on problem structuring and a great deal of discussion on ‘wicked problems’ in this literature. The majority of scholars in this field do not engage with such big picture issues, and restrict themselves to limited managerial contexts 30. We need to expose managers to wicked problems so they can become accustomed to finding pathways for taming them. Hopefully, this will prepare managers mentally for the turbulent years ahead.


This paper has presented a model of engagement as a way of explaining how wicked problems are tamed through a process of ’framing’ and ’reframing’ by interacting actors in wicked problems. This process was argued to lead to the decision-making heuristics used to tame a wicked problem. I also presented a feedback arm called re-framing, which highlighted the renegotiation of a decision once the initial framing had taken place, and argued that this was reached through framing and reframing existing and alternative interpretations of wicked problems. I concluded by arguing that future projects should develop guidelines for managers who live, work and interact with the modern world of wicked problems.






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