Despite the festive aurora of Halloween we are surrounded by wicked problems.  Wicked problems are very complex with many connected issues and no single solution. They affect a lot of people and for a company they can disrupt business or even change the industry. 

Companies can leverage these problems into opportunities to not only help their company grow, but also help create sustainable solutions to long term problems, such as: access to water, obesity, pollution, pay equity, and others.

David Butler and Linda Tishker discussed the issue of wicked problems in their book Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can Too).

For The Coca-Cola Company (Coke) it was access to water and threats from governments banning soft drinks. To address the problem before it got wicked, Coca-Cola set a goal, “By 2020, safely return to communities and nature an amount of water equal to what we use in our finished beverages and their production.”

In August, Coke announced they are on track to meet their goal by the end of 2015.  They saw a problem and focused on a solution that was not only relevant to their bottom line, but also important to communities throughout the world. To achieve their goal, they leveraged their corporate resources, their vendors and suppliers and developed collaborative relationships with NGOs such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Water for the People.  Now The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) has close to 500 water projects in development across the globe and created a few non-profit entities to address the issue in the long term.  

At the same time Coke is working to avoid a shortage to water, the lifeline of their company, they are also fighting another wicked problem – obesity and municipalities, such as New York City, from banning soft drinks or at least soft drinks in schools.  

Companies such as Coca-Cola are working to change the public’s perception on what is healthy and what is not, and that there is no such thing as “Too Much of a Good Thing.”  They are turning to science to make their argument and have teamed up with researchers to use evidenced-based messaging to convince people that soft drinks are okay, or at least they should exercise more. They also created another foundation, The Global Balance Energy Network

The Coca-Cola Company realizes that obesity is a wicked problem and is working together with business and government leaders and other industry leaders to find meaningful solutions to the challenge of obesity. 

While the company and other soft drink manufacturers have their challenges, they already acquired “healthier” drinks, including bottled water and are still grappling with how to create a balance between soft drinks and good health.  They, however, see a problem and are working to design a system to solve it. 

In their book, Design to Grow, Butler and Tishker talk about dealing with that difficult balance of issues becoming problems.  Design is about intentionally connecting people with the resources to solve problems.

Good design creates a system to change behavior and inspire action, because something designed well makes it easier for others to read about it, to understand it or easier to access it.

Companies, like The Coca-Cola Company, and the CEO, need to be agile. Both need to be observant, gauge the public’s interest and the perception.  Both need to predict how government will respond or deal with the issues affecting their industry and their company, and both need to deal with issues quickly and easily before they become wicked problems.