Wicked Problems

Origins

In 1973, Rittel and Webber published an article entitled Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning[1] that has had a lasting impact on management thinking. The paper identified two types of problems: “tame” problems that were definable and amenable to scientific solution, and “wicked” problems that were not.

Criteria

They argued that virtually all social problems were wicked and offered ten criteria for determining whether a particular issue or problem could be termed “wicked.”

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation;” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error and every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

A Google search in 2017 turns up 840,000 hits suggesting that the concept continues to be widely researched, explored and applied. One of the more interesting applications comes from the world of systems theory and thinking: consider a wicked problem as an open system – a system that receives feedback from multiple, unknown sources.

Approach

We at RANA are not inclined to be definitive about the criteria for “Wicked Problems” or how many must be met in order to be deemed wicked, but we do consider the concept to be an ideal way to depict how an organization sometimes deals with its external environment. In fact, some organizations encounter a “Wicked Problem” totally unexpectedly, even though the signs were very much present the whole time, e.g. the Mortgage Bubble crisis causing economic collapse.

We recommend the following approach when dealing with wicked problems:

Discover the problem

  • Name it as a situation statement
  • Describe it: to the best of your current knowledge:
    • What is it?
    • Where is it showing up?
    • When is it showing up?
    • How much is it showing up?
    • Do we know why it is showing up at this particular time?
  • Select some key people to spearhead managing the Wicked Problem
  • Set up a positive and collaborative framework for moving ahead

Trace its origins

  • Describe where you think the problem originated, perhaps what changed to cause it
  • Describe the role that people (human factors) played in originating the problem

Determine its impact

  • Determine what is the overall impact on the organization
  • Determine the impact on the various groups or individuals
  • Describe each person’s role
  • Identify possible outcomes for each of the groups or individuals involved

Trace a path forward

  • Establish some key actions to address the parts of the problem
  • Anticipate constraints and risks and strengthen the key actions accordingly
  • Identify those impacted as the target community for taking action and making changes
  • Communicate with those in the targeted community to let them know what is happening

Act

  • Move forward on the key actions and monitor the effect carefully
  • Manage each person’s expectations
  • Reward all collaboration
  • Make progress visible to all and get feedback
  • Choose the next step based on the feedback received
  • Add more key actions based on success or rethink if the key actions didn’t work
  • Gradually work on each part of the Wicked Problem until its impact becomes manageable

Review

  • Integrate solutions to the organization’s other processes, e.g. Business Planning
  • Reinforce the emerging solution as a standard for the organization
  • Determine what is necessary to avoid a recurring Wicked Problem of the same kind
  • Credit all those in the organization who participated in managing it to a solution

Complicating Factors

There are complicating factors when a “Wicked Problem” emerges in an organization:

  • More often than not, organizations are operating with information that is either blatantly false or at least distorted (check out Chris Argyris on this);
  • Most strategic decisions taken in organizations are oral in nature, are taken by well-meaning but ill-informed executives and are not based on any factual information;
  • Most Business Plans in organizations are far too rooted in the past as a clerical exercise, rather than providing an appropriate framework for flexing towards the future.

Also keep in mind that some wicked problems have no solution that carries a reasonable probability of success:

  • sometimes doing nothing is not an option;
  • so we would encourage picking a piece that the organization could actually do something about and that is, at least, constructive.

This is where the management of expectations comes in.

[1] Rittel, Horst W. J. & Webber, Melvin M. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in Policy Sciences 4 (1973) pp. 155-169

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