Wicked Problem Solving

If you clicked the link to this article, you fall in one of two categories. Either you know what design thinking is and what wicked problems are. Or, the title sounded catchy and you want to know more. Either way, you’re curious, and that’s a good thing.

This is the tl;dr version of possibly the most interesting project I’ve worked on during my time as a grad student at Carnegie Mellon. It involved a wicked problem, a major healthcare company, and a team of interdisciplinary students — Big shout out to my teammates Lama Alfulaij, Harry Rossoff, Yifan Zhu, and Zhiye Jin.

The nature of the project prevents me from stating any details. But what I can describe is our approach and what I learned along the way.

To be clear, we didn’t crack the code for solving wicked problems. But I felt compelled to write about what I felt was an incredible learning experience. While I can’t provide exact details, what I’ve done is pick-out critical takeaways from our product development process. They’re high-level, but should hopefully get others thinking about how to approach complex problems in their own organization or society.

The Problem Statement

“The client is interested in developing innovative solutions to provide patients and members with the appropriate tools to combat and prevent opioid addiction. It should include but not be limited to effective education for both customers and providers, as well as sharing evidence-based treatment approaches and identifying potential policy solutions.”

The problem our project was based on was the Opioid Crisis. It’s an epidemic that’s seemed to have gained attention only recently. But researchers argue it began decades ago, in the early 1990s, when opioid-related deaths started rising sharply. A trend that correlated with a spike in the volume of opioid prescriptions.

Our primary responsibility was to function as product developers. Our scope was to conduct thorough research, hone down into one possible area of innovation, and present a detailed, high-fidelity concept to our client.

The Opioid Crisis — A Wicked Problem unlike any other

The terms wicked problem was first coined by Horst Rittel, a design theorist and professor of design methodology. He cited 10 characteristics and other explanations that you can go through in detail if you want to. But here’s a concise description I managed to find.

“A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve for four main reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions, the economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with others. They are endemic complex systems with components that interact in complicated, poorly understood, and unpredictable ways”.

The reason the Opioid Crisis is a wicked problem should be fairly obvious to a design thinker. Although I must admit, I only saw it after our initial research. It has all the markings of ridiculously complicated problems. The US has less than 5% of the world population — 329 Million people- yet consumes roughly 80 percent of the global opioid supply. That number alone should give you a sense of scale. The graph below should give you an idea of the complexity, and this is just Pittsburgh alone.

Wicked Problem Solving — a retrospective look at our approach

I don’t have a failproof answer to solving wicked problems. If I did I’d probably be on my way collecting my Nobel Prize, and not sitting in my room at 11:00 pm on a Sunday writing a long overdue medium post.

While there are no solutions to wicked problem solving, I did notice key ingredients towards a possible formula. And even though there isn’t a single approach, we still had to pick one. In this case, the double diamond method framework worked well for us. As you can see below, the 4 stages are defined by its key themes of discovery, definition, development, and delivery.

A detailed phase by phase description of the activities and outcomes of our project involves information that is simply too long to list out here. Instead, I’ve summarized and highlighted the key takeaways from our process that were critical to the success of our proposed concept.

Listen and Empathize

Solving a problem first requires understanding it. The first phase began with discovery-based activities with the aim of creating a foundation of knowledge to build a solution upon. This included, but was not limited to, a holistic analysis of the various factors involved in the crisis across different areas — Political, Economical, Social, Technology, Legal, and Environmental (PESTLEs) — followed by a high-level identification of over 100 possible concepts.

The knowledge we gathered, while useful, was in a way superficial. To get a true sense of these facts and placing them within the right context involved actually going out on the field — visiting hospitals, and chatting with doctors and experts.

A critical component of this phase were the interviews. Specifically, what worked well for us was narrowing down who we wanted to interview and what we were going to ask them. It’s a core tenet of HCD — focus on the right people, and ask the right questions. Our interviews gave us an incredible amount of useful information, and more importantly, helped us answer an important question…

Are we solving the right problem?

Snapshots of our research synthesis give an idea of our thought process and insights.

Bear in mind that this is only a tiny piece to the puzzle, and not the entire picture itself.

Visualize and Map-Out

Retrospectively, what we did here paralleled Tom Wujec’s approach to solving complex problems. I highly recommend you watch his Ted Talk to know more about it. Some call it a service blueprint, others say journey mapping, while still many in the digital domain may refer to it as user flows. Call it whatever you want, as long as you ensure you take the time to visualize all the pieces of information and connect the dots across each of them to draw out the big picture.

Visualizing info helps build connections across aspects of the problem that don’t seem related. Because wicked problems involve elements of varying and complex nature, drawing out the ideas and information in our heads was an incredibly useful exercise. Not only did we feel lighter, but we were also able to visualize the problem, and convert it into a structure that helped us map out and reconstruct the opioid problem from a perspective that we could understand better. And as an interdisciplinary team, we were able to share our unique perspectives, assimilate a large amount of information, and collectively agree on a solution moving forward.

Here’s the high-fidelity version of our map we drew out.

Using the butterfly effect to create change in complex systems

When I look at graphical representations of large interconnected systems, I can’t help but think of the butterfly effect. In plain language, it means that tiny initial changes within a complex system can have large unpredictable effects on the outcomes of those systems.

If you look at the systems diagram above, we highlighted pain-points within the medical visit experience of an opioid-addicted patient. This experience is part of a massive web of collective experiences that collectively complicate the opioid problem. It’s intimidating to think of a solution that solves everything in one go.

But what if we don’t need to? What if solving one aspect of it leads to positive ripple effects across the entire ecosystem.

Consider the stigma problem we mentioned a little while back. It’s a negative part of the treatment experience leading to other complications — loss of trust, unwillingness to educate patients, or ineffective use of resources. The problems go beyond the diagram and into other domains that we know of but didn’t focus on. It eventually affects families, places of work, and extended communities. If we could change just that one problem, imagine the others it could fix as a result.

One of the value propositions our solution proposed involved removing the stigma from the equation. Not all healthcare companies do a great job of supporting opioid addiction treatment programs. An absence of stigma or a show of support could mean better treatment outcomes and more advocates for awareness initiatives. Better awareness can lead to large brands supporting the cause, which could lead to a change in perception among society. For example, if John Hopkins advertised a partnership with a brand like Nike with 47.4 Million Instagram followers, this could lead to an exponential increase in awareness about the problem. And a massive shift in perception.


The project ended on a high note, with a happy client and a great learning experience. Not only did we get hands-on experience working with real clients and a real-world problem, but we also picked up several soft skills on the way. I personally have become a better listener, collaborator, and hopefully a better teammate along the way. Being in charge of Phase 2 of the world taught me a good deal about project and product management.

Most importantly, I saw first hand the value of interdisciplinary collaboration in the innovation process. It’s like chemical X in product development and is the key to unlocking innovation in companies looking to disrupt.



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