Edgeware - Aides


Complexity lens
Tune to the edge

Make it or let it
Emerges from the fabric

Wicked Questions

Surfacing Differences

Brenda Zimmerman,
Schulich School of Business,
York University,
Toronto, Canada

The basic idea:

Wicked questions are used to expose the assumptions which we hold about an issue or situation. Articulating these assumptions provides an opportunity to see the patterns of thought and surface the differences in a group. These patterns and differences can be used to discover common ground or to find creative alternatives for stubborn problems.

Wicked questions invite participation in both forming the questions and searching for solutions to address them.

Potential context for use:
  • to change the role of leadership from having the answers to having the questions

  • when innovative solutions are needed for 'stuck' problems

  • when there are polarized positions in a group and there seem to only either-or answers

  • to open up possibilities which are not intuitively obvious

  • to bring in new information to a problem or issue by exposing the differences

  • to openly contrast goals and actual circumstances

  • to promote ongoing inquiry

  • when the context seems overwhelming and confusing and the group needs an approach to make sense of the patterns

  • to make the 'undiscussable' discussable - to articulate the assumptions held by members in a group



Wicked questions do not have an obvious answer. They are used to expose the assumptions which shape our actions and choices. They are questions that articulate the embedded and often contradictory assumptions we hold about an issue, context or organization.

A question is 'wicked' if there is an embedded paradox or tension in the question. The embedded tension or paradox is an opportunity to tune to edge of chaos. This is an area of great creativity and innovation.

A wicked question is not a trick question. With a trick question, someone knows the answer. Wicked questions do not have obvious answers. Their value lies in their capacity to open up options, inquiry and surface the fundamental issues that need to be addressed.

The paradoxes or tensions are often found in the implicit assumptions we hold about a context, issue or person. Exposing these assumptions in a question is often both uncomfortable and a relief. It is uncomfortable because the myths we create to bury our assumptions often seem more acceptable and defensible. They are the right thing to say. For example, it is popular today to talk about empowered front-line people. But in many cases, these words are not really accurate. We have created policies or procedures, such as needing supervisory approval for minor expenditures, which are the antithesis of empowerment.


Wicked questions invite participation in both forming the questions and searching for solutions to address them. Leaders can create the questions which can be used to promote a search for local solutions. They can be used to create the conditions for inquiry and innovation at all levels of the organization.

For Example:

A Children's Mental Health Centre in Canada argued that their purpose was about preventing mental health problems in children. They also believed in being customer focused. They asked themselves this wicked question: "How does focusing on our clients limit the impact of what we do?"

Four doctors and two nurses run a practice for families in a city in Canada. They believe in the research findings on the determinants of health. They asked this wicked question: "Are the determinants of health sufficiently reflected in our work?"

A large metals distributor had a stated goal to mobilize and empower front-line people. At a strategy planning retreat, the senior management team asked each other the wicked question: "are we ready to put responsibility for work on the shoulders of the people who do it?"


Before using this aide: Is there sufficient trust in the group to expose assumptions? Will people feel safe to express the paradoxes and tensions which exist?

After using this aide: How will the group use the question(s) to continue the process of searching for alternatives? How will the questions be shared with others? Which questions will be explored further? Why?


One comprehensive example of using wicked questions is in the tale "Make it Happen or Let it Happen". This tale is from outside the health care field. The organization, Federal Metals (or Fedmet), is a metals distributor. The senior management team of Fedmet were concerned that traditional strategic planning did not promote continuous inquiry and challenge. Instead, they felt it limited the strategic thinking to a few senior members of the organization. To create the conditions for emergence of strategic options throughout the organization, they ended their traditional annual strategic planning document with a series of wicked questions. These questions did not have obvious answers. The wicked questions were an invitation for everyone in the organization to participate in finding solutions to complex problems.

In the tale "Emerges from the Fabric", Linda Rusch uses wicked questions as a method to make the undiscussable discussable - to articulate the issues which people are thinking but not saying to each other - at least in the official meetings.

One organization I worked with used the wicked questions as an ongoing process. The wicked questions were posted on a wall in a common area of the offices. They stayed up for about six weeks after the original session. Sheets of paper and markers were left by the wall and people were invited to add to the questions, move them, and create their own. The wall was near the coffee area and people would chat about the questions while they were getting their coffee. People in the organization talked about the issues and shared ideas for potential action opportunities. There was no stated agenda or specific meeting times allocated to this activity. It emerged from the wall, the questions and the connections created.

Facilitator's Tips:
  • To see the patterns in the questions.... Draw 3 - 5 shapes on pieces of paper and place high on a wall. Space the patterns out. Ask each participant or group to create two wicked questions. You can specify the context or boundaries to focus the questions if appropriate. Participants will write their questions on two sheets of paper which can then be taped or tacked to the wall.

  • Tell the participants to put each of their questions under the shape that seems to fit their questions. But ask the participants to read the other questions on the wall as well. When they see a question which seems similar in theme to their own question, place the questions together. Questions can be moved around and regrouped by the participants.

  • The idea is to have the participants see the patterns in their questions - to see the common themes, the differences, the links. When they are satisfied with the sorting of the questions, have them examine the whole wall and ask what surprised them about the questions. Use this 'surprise' idea to identify areas of new information or understanding which can lead to creative options.

  • You can also ask them to identify action opportunities. Focus on one of the key questions. Ask participants to state one thing they could do (or stop doing) in their work to address the question.

  • One of the purposes of this technique is to identify the patterns that are beneath the surface. I have used plastic easel paper called 'Static Image' sheets for this purpose. The plastic sheets stick to the wall with static and are therefore easily moved around without the bother of tacks or tape. I usually cut a regular easel size piece of paper into 8 - 16 smaller pieces so they can be more easily moved about. White board markers are used to write on these sheets.

  • Be creative in the use of this technique. Experiment with methods to promote the inquiry process behind the technique itself.



Goldstein describes processes of inquiry which can be used to promote creativity, information flow and self-organization. He discusses Brenda Zimmerman's analysis of the wicked questions process at Fedmet but also provides examples of other inquiry processes. Difference questioning was originally used to deal with 'stuck problems' in dysfunctional families, and can be used as a method to expose differences in organizational settings. Goldstein extends difference questioning to look at cultural difference questioning and purpose contrasting. Purpose contrasting creates a stretch between what you say your work is all about and what you actually do.

Next | Previous | Return to Contents List

Copyright > 2000, Brenda J. Zimmerman. Schulich School of Business,
York University, Toronto, Canada. Permission to copy for educational
purposes only.