Defining Characteristics of Wicked Problems

I’m just wrapping up a course I’ve been teaching at DePaul’s School for New Learning on Understanding Organizational Change. I’ve grounded the course in a view of organizations as dynamic systems from the perspective of Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge. In the last few sessions, we’ve also been discussing the notion of Wicked Problems and the challenges they present in today’s organizational environment.

I introduced the following list of “defining characteristics of wicked problems” drawn from The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations. I’m not yet finished with that book, although it is excellent so far. I’ll post a review when I’ve finished it. Here is their list:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In other words, the problem can be framed in many different ways, depending on which aspects of it one wants to emphasise. These different views of the problem can often be contradictory. Take, for example, the problem of traffic congestion. One solution may involve building more roads, whereas another may involve improving public transport. The first accommodates an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, whereas the second attempts to reduce it.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The first characteristic states that one s understanding of the problem depends on how one approaches it. Consequently, the problem is never truly solved. Each new insight or solution improves one s understanding of the problem yet one never completely understands it. This often leads to a situation in which people are loath to take action because additional analysis might increase the chances of finding a better solution. Analysis paralysis, anyone?
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false but better or worse. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong but are subjectively better or worse. Consequently, judgements on the effectiveness of solutions are likely to differ widely based on the personal interests, values, and ideology of the participants.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems cannot be validated as is the case in tame problems. Any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences that may yield undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages. (Offering Britney Spears a recording contract is a classic example).
  • 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. Rittel explained this characteristic succinctly, with the example One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions. There are no criteria that allow one to test whether or not all possible solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Using what worked elsewhere will generally not work for wicked problems. There are always features that are unique to a particular wicked situation. Accordingly, one can never be certain that the specifics of a problem are consistent with previous problems that one has dealt with. This characteristic directly calls into question the common organisational practice of implementing best practices that have worked elsewhere.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This refers to the fact that a wicked problem can usually be traced back to a deeper underlying problem. For example, a high crime rate might be due to the lack of economic opportunities. In this case the obvious solution of cracking down on crime is unlikely to work because it treats the symptom, not the cause. The point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sure that one has reached the fundamental underlying problem. The level at which a problem settles cannot be decided on logical grounds alone.
  • 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. In other words, a wicked problem can be explained in many ways with each explanation serving the interests of a particular group of stakeholders.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate). Those who work with wicked problems (town planners, for example) are paid to design and implement solutions. However, as we have seen, solutions to wicked problems cause other unforeseen issues. Planners and problem solvers are invariably held responsible for the unanticipated consequences of their solutions.

Culmsee, Paul; Kailash Awati (2011-12-02). The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations (Kindle Locations 2759-2839). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.