Tackling wicked problems in strategic management with systems thinking

Sylvia Grewatsch, Steve Kennedy, Pratima Bansal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

64 Citations (Scopus)


Strategy scholars are increasingly attempting to tackle complex global social and environmental issues (i.e. wicked problems); yet, many strategy scholars approach these wicked problems in the same way they approach business problems—by building causal models that seek to optimize some form of organizational success. Strategy scholars seek to reduce complexity, focusing on the significant variables that explain the salient outcomes. This approach to wicked problems, ironically, divorces firms from the very social-ecological context that makes the problem “wicked.” In this essay, we argue that strategy research into wicked problems can benefit from systems thinking, which deviates radically from the reductionist approach to analysis taken by many strategy scholars. We review some of the basic tenets of systems thinking and describe their differences from reductionist thinking. Furthermore, we ask strategy scholars to widen their theoretical lens by (1) investigating co-evolutionary dynamics rather than focusing primarily on static models, (2) advancing processual insights rather than favoring causal identification, and (3) recognizing tipping points and transformative change rather than assuming linear monotonic changes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)721-732
Number of pages12
JournalStrategic Organization
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • reductionist thinking
  • strategic management
  • systems thinking
  • wicked problems

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