Cover: Tackling Wicked Government Problems

Tackling Wicked Government Problems

A Practical Guide for Developing Enterprise Leaders

Revised paperback edition available October 2014!

How can government leaders build, sustain, and leverage the cross-organizational collaborative networks needed to tackle the complex interagency and intergovernmental challenges they increasingly face? Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Developing Enterprise Leaders draws on the experiences of high-level government leaders to describe and comprehensively articulate the complicated, ill-structured difficulties they face—often referred to as “wicked problems”—in leading across organizational boundaries and offers the best strategies for addressing them.

Tackling Wicked Government Problems explores how enterprise leaders use networks of trusted, collaborative relationships to respond and lead solutions to problems that span agencies. It also offers several approaches for translating social network theory into practical approaches for these leaders to build and leverage boundary-spanning collaborative networks and achieve real mission results.

Finally, past and present government executives offer strategies for systematically developing enterprise leaders. Taken together, these essays provide a way forward for a new cadre of officials better equipped to tackle government’s twenty-first-century wicked challenges.

Abridged Excerpt:

Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, terrorism, the Haiti earthquake, ending homelessness for veterans, and many other wicked problems cannot be solved by one agency... responding to wicked challenges requires a “network” of organizations...


Rick Thomas was in his fifties and a GS-15 working for the Department of Defense’s Test Resource Management Center when one of the great challenges of his career was foisted upon him: he was asked to improve the management of U.S. missile ranges. His charge was to increase operational effectiveness while lowering cost, but the odds of success were not good. A 1989 congressional study indicated that low operational performance and excessive costs plagued the missile launch ranges. For several years, Rick’s predecessor worked on these issues but to no avail. Now it was Rick’s turn to tackle the impossible.

The core of the challenge was that thirty-three different government agencies had a role and interest in the missile ranges. Making any progress in improving performance and reducing costs required most (if not all) of these agencies— especially the Air Force, as it controls the principal operating budget for the missile ranges— to accept and be willing to implement the steps to be taken.

Leading the enterprise to coordinate and collaborate across this network of agencies with interconnected responsibilities but competing and unaligned interests was a complex and unstructured— some might call wicked— challenge. A case can be made that since 9-11 the U.S. government has faced, with increasing frequency, wicked problems that can only be effectively handled by interorganizational collaboration and action. Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, terrorism, the Haiti earthquake, ending homelessness for veterans, and many other wicked problems cannot be solved by one agency or at times even one government.

To make progress in responding to and resolving wicked problems that span the government enterprise, collaboration and coordination within and across federal agencies, between federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations, between military and nonmilitary organizations, and among governments is needed. In sum, responding to wicked challenges requires a “network” of organizations with the collective authorities, resources, and capabilities to jointly tackle the problems. If this idea sounds difficult, it is! How can leaders increase the likelihood of solving wicked problems through networks?


About the Editors

Author: Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson
is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. He also is a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brookings–Olin Executive Education partnership at Brookings.

Author: Ronald Sanders

Ronald Sanders
is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and the firm’s first fellow. He also has served in a number of senior U.S. government posts, including Associate Director of National Intelligence, Chief HR Officer for the Internal Revenue Service, and Director of Civilian Personnel for the U.S. Department of Defense.