Wicked Problems, Explained
Wicked problems are problems that defy definition. They are too complicated for any one person to understand in their entirety, they span organizational and group boundaries, and call upon knowledge from multiple, specialized areas of work. We only ever understand a small part of what people in other groups and departments do. Solving a wicked problem is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle — without the picture on the box.
When faced with uncertainty, we retreat to what we know – knowledge that is based on our own experience. In our day-to-day practice, we develop a repertoire of solutions-that-work, patterns and decision-criteria that fit the problems we face. We know (from research studies), that people try to fit partial solutions, based on this experiential knowledge, to the problems they perceive. When that does not work, they ask colleagues and trusted contacts for a solution. When that does not work, they re-define the problem to fit the partial solutions available to them.
That is why change management groups get bogged down in political disputes. Managers from one function don’t realize that people from different areas of the business understand their words and ideas differently than they intended. They make assumptions about how these other areas work, based on what they know from their own area. When we extend our personal solutions to fit how people work in other business groups and functions, they fail miserably because, in essence, everyone is solving a different problem.
In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber wrote a paper exploring organizational planning and change-management problems were not amendable to logical analysis techniques. They contrasted “tame” problems, which could be expressed as a set of rules, or constraints, with “wicked” problems, which could not be defined in terms of an algorithm. They defined ten characteristics of wicked problems, shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Ten Characteristics of Wicked Problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973)
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
Wicked problems cannot be defined and have no clear boundary. They consist of multiple problem-elements, some of which appear more important to some stakeholders than others, depending on their experience and where they are in the organization. Rittel (1972) argues that we cannot use conventional problem analysis methods, as our understanding of the problem-situation and potential solutions emerge in tandem, through mutual exploration and “argumentation” concerning the nature of the problem and appropriate solutions.
In software design, the idea of not converging on a solution too early is known as avoiding premature design. In management science, the term complexification is used to explain how shared mental models, or frames become more complicated as groups of problem-solvers develop a shared language and pool perspectives on a problem-situation. The iterative processes of perspective-taking (from others in the group) and perspective-making (to improve shared understanding), underpin effective argumentation for wicked problems (Boland and Tenkasi 1995).
3. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
Because Wicked Problems have no definitive formulation, we cannot define criteria to evaluate when we have a good enough solution. Problem-definitions are negotiated across those involved in the situation to be changed. They incorporate multiple perspectives, some of which become more salient as specific aspects of the situation or its solution are explored, or as various stakeholders attempt to incorporate their own perspectives and agendas for change (Davidson 2002). We don’t know when we are done with this process – we can only judge individually if all the elements we wanted to see in a solution have been included.
4. Solutions are subjectively good-enough, rather than optimal.
As there is no clear set of criteria for a solution, we cannot evaluate when we have reached a solution that would “work.” Stakeholder assessments of proposed solutions are subjective and negotiated, defined around fit with the framing perspective they adopt, and expressed as ‘good enough,’ rather than right or wrong.
5. There are no criteria to judge if all solutions have been identified.
Lacking a definitive problem formulation and boundary, we cannot define any rules or logic to judge whether we have included all the important aspects of the problem in our analysis. Implementing a solution will generate waves of consequences, which may have repercussions that outweigh the intended benefits. We may end up making the situation worse than when we started.
However, we can explore the knock-on effects of various solution elements by employing a systemic analysis that allows us to analyze the likely impacts of change in conjunction with our emerging understanding of the problem.
6. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
Every attempt at a solution changes things, in ways that are irreversible. Once we make changes to the problem-situation, we face a different set of problems. So we cannot plan an incremental set of changes, then reverse course if something does not work. We can attempt to predict the knock-on effects of changes using a systemic analysis, but some solutions may introduce unforeseen consequences, requiring us to start again with a fresh analysis.
7. Wicked problems do not have an agreed scope, or set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan for a solution.
Wicked problems tend to span organizational, functional, and management boundaries. So nobody fully understands what the problem is – just the parts that they can see from where they stand. Wicked problem exploration is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle – you get glimpses of a face, or a building, but are never quite sure what the big picture looks like. So solutions are partial and negotiated around “fit” with the emerging problem, rather than any objective definition of scope or legitimacy. We can agree a set of elements we’d like to incorporate into a plan of change, but we don’t know if we understood all the requirements, or if we missed something big. All we can do is to work of collective representations of the problem and debate the expected consequences of solution elements, using representations and methods to explore interactions between the parts.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
Wicked problems can be conceived of as “messes” (Ackoff 1974) or “soft systems” of human-activity (Checkland 1999). Because wicked problems are so complex, incorporating multiple chains of cause-and-effect (many of which may have multiple causes) into a coherent representation of the problem-situation is difficult. Problem-components are interrelated: some problems may be causes or symptoms of others, some problems have multiple causes, and some share a common cause. To untangle these problems, the relationships between them – and the consequential knock-on effects of changing part of the system of related elements – needs to be modeled and appreciated. This requires systemic analysis methods.
9. A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
As discussed above, we need to assess and argue the value of a solution across multiple stakeholders who have differing perspectives on the problem and competing agendas for change. Their perspectives are likely to depend on where they are in the organization, their disciplinary background and education, and their prior experience. Their priorities for change are likely to differ widely according to their group or personal interests and values, and their sensitization to various types of organizational problem and solutions. It is unlikely that everyone will define either problems or solutions in the same way. The process of argumentation used to explore problems mush therefore focus on building consensus, as the way in which the problem is defined tends to direct the type of solution considered. For example, if we define the problem as one of disorganized work processes, an appropriate solution might be to implement a team-coordination system, whereas if we define the problem as a lack of relevant information, the solution would be more likely to focus on an information repository.
10. We need to involve participants in the situation – and to listen to what they say.
The consequences generated by changes last for a long time. Some of these may be predictable, but because problems are interrelated, some changes may introduce unforeseen consequences. The lives and work of people involved in the problem-situation are irreversibly changed, and these changes will influence how they work, and what they are able to do (or not do) in the future. The aim is to improve some aspects of the organizational situation, but changes may have unintended consequences that need remediation.
Conclusion: Wicked Problems Need Exploration, Appreciation, and Systemic Analysis
Solving Wicked Problems requires appreciation of the problem-situation, accompanied by systemic analysis. Horst Rittel (1972), who originated the term, suggested that we use a process of argumentation to design solutions: “a counterplay of raising issues and dealing with them, which in turn raises new issues, and so on, and so on.” He saw the goal of argumentation as piecing together a big picture from the fragmented viewpoints and problem-definitions held by change-agents, stakeholders, and those people who work in the problem-situation.
The main thing to note about wicked problems is that they can be defined in multiple ways, which means that various stakeholders will define them differently, depending on their experience and their position in the organization. That means that wicked problems are not goal-oriented, nor are they simple to define. Instead, we need to employ a systemic problem analysis approach to resolve them – one where stakeholders can explore and negotiate the boundary and the elements included in the problem to be resolved.
Boland, R.J. and Tenkasi, R.V. 1995. “Perspective Making and Perspective Taking in Communities of Knowing,” Organization Science (6:4), pp. 350-372
Rittel, H.W.J. 1972. “Second Generation Design Methods,” DMG Occasional Paper 1. Reprinted in N. Cross (Ed.) 1984. Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester: 317-327.
Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4, pp. 155-169.