Solving Wicked problems

That's Wicked with a capital W; not just ordinary wicked. And that's not wicked in the sense of street wicked (ie rather good) nor does it mean dreadfully evil like a demon or a nasty lady with a pointy hat. This Wicked is a term first used by two chaps from Berkeley - Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber - to explain their thinking (in 1972) about tough problems and how to handle them. Pinching the definition from Wikipedia, a Wicked Problem is one...

"...that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems."

Rittel and Webber talk about two types of problem - Tame and Wicked. Tame problems are those that have a clear objective and a straightforward way of telling whether they have been achieved, like putting a man on the moon or holding the Olympic Games or building the Burj Khalifa tower (these problems are undoubtedly hard but they are not Wicked). From the Berkeley chaps themselves ...

...[understanding a Wicked problem] is the same thing as finding the solution; the problem can't be defined until the solution has been found.

...say, fixing inner-city crime or reducing obesity or sharing knowledge better. These are typically problems whose solutions rely more on human behaviour than they do on the laws of physics.

Tame problems are generally solved through well understood and practised sequential processes: visioning, designing, building, testing and implementing (or similar). Wicked ones respond to incremental-ism, entrepreneurial opportunism, self-organising communities, transparent collaboration and adaptive learning. If that sounds like I am mixing methodological apples and pears here, well I probably am. And that's the important thing: the thinking is different.

There is no doubt that our skill at resolving Tame problems has given us much and made our society what it is today. But I sense that, if we are to continue progressing, we will have to get much better at handling the Wicked ones. Tame methods are familiar and (ostensibly) easier to control, but I worry that we may be applying them inappropriately in Wicked situations and doing much less well than we might. I need to stress that I do not at all believe that Tame methods are becoming irrelevant or that there aren't sensible strategies for fixing challenging problems, it's just that I think, as our world becomes more complex and more dynamic (see my post on When community-building leadership will prosper), our toughest problems will no longer yield to traditional approaches.

There is an obvious charge that the Wicked-problem approaches look chaotic and out of control. I guess they may be chaotic (because the context is chaotic and there's no way around that) but they don't need to be out of control. Control in the Wicked world is different and comes from the self-organising communities and transparent communication I mentioned earlier. A few years ago I would not have believed this feasible at the necessary scale but - with the emergence of social software and the new, much more transparent means of collaborating it brings - I think differently now. I believe it is possible.

So, I guess my conclusion is that we need to grow capacity in our organisations to recognise and to handle Wicked problems better, ...which, on reflection, is probably a Wicked problem itself.

This is a quick skim of Wicked problems and I have left loads out. If it rings bells, do look further: the Wikipedia entry is good (I particularly liked the bit about the Authoritative vs Competitive vs Collaborative approaches). For more, read the blog of Deb Lavoy who writes wisely and well on the subject - try her recent piece Planning may not apply. And for Rittel's and Webber's original work, see Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning - despite the non-wicked (the street meaning this time) title and perhaps slightly academic lilt it is well worth the read.

What do you think about this? Do Wicked problems really exist? Do existing engineering approaches actually already cater for Wickedness? Do you recognise a Tame approach failing to solve a Wicked problem? Please do comment.