What are wicked problems?

July 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

Samuel Wilson

Wicked problems are the antithesis of tame problems. Hence, whereas tame problems are definable, separable, and have solutions that are findable, wicked problems resist easy definition, cannot be cleanly delineated from other problems, and do not possess a correct solution (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

Wicked problems are more than just complicated; they are complex (Grint, 2010). At least three types of complexity are pertinent to understanding the nature of wicked problems: dynamic, social, and generative (Kahane, 2010).

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of a view of the natural and social world as one constituted by myriad energetically open, but organisationally closed systems (Capra, 1996). This has heightened our sensitivity to the diversity of hidden connections that inhere between actors, entities, and phenomena (Capra, 2004), as well as the waves of repercussions that ripple through these systems (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

Further, it has become apparent that, in these systems, cause and effect not just far apart in time and space, but are interdependent and, hence, not always amenable to clean disambiguation. Social-ecological systems and the wicked problems encountered within them that possess these characteristics aredynamically complex (Kahane, 2010).

It is one thing to be cognisant that dynamically complex systems have these characteristics in an abstract sense, but quite another to formulate a concrete conception of a wicked problem that reflects this understanding. We are notoriously bad at understanding dynamically complex systems, and the wicked problems encountered within them, as a whole.

Indeed, systems in which cause and effect are far apart in space and time constitute what psychologists call a wicked learning environment. Because so much of our learning about causal relationship is based on observing the temporal coupling between events, wicked learning environments miseducate our intuitions about the world and teach precisely the wrong lessons about cause and effect (Hogarth, 2001).

In consequence, in dynamically complex systems, it is difficult for people to develop a shared understanding – technically, a shared mental model – of what the problem is. Further, because mental models involve causal beliefs – that is, beliefs about how one thing leads to another – it is also difficult to develop a shared understanding about how to solve a problem.

Further, unlike tame problems, which yield true or false, or right or wrong answers, the solutions to wicked problems can only be judged as good or bad (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Typically, the actors involved are equally equipped and entitled to judge the proposed solutions to wicked problems, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Wicked problems are therefore socially complex, which occurs when the actors involved possess a diversity of perspectives and interests (Kahane, 2010).

To the extent that the interests of each actor, or group of actors, are inimical – or perceived as inimical – to the interests of other actors, cooperation recedes and competition escalates. Under such circumstances, the chances of discovering a ‘solution’ that most actors believe is sound or fair declines precipitously.

Finally, problems are generatively complex when they are unfamiliar, uncertain, and undetermined, which means that the future state of the system in which a problem is encountered is influenced by present behaviour (Kahane, 2010). The proposition that each interim solution to wicked problems creates waves that reverberate through the system (Rittel & Webber, 1973) exemplifies this.

Whereas experts are typically ascribed responsibility for managing tame problems, and authorities are ascribed responsibility for commanding during crises, responsibility for wicked problems – and the attendant uncertainty – falls to the actors involved (Grint, 2010; Kahane, 2010). Few, perhaps none, of these people will be recognised as problem-specific expertise or authority by other stakeholders, which means that the social organisation of these actors enacted is unlikely to be patterned by ‘mindless’ compliance with experts or obedience to authorities.

Critically, this means that leadership in the context of complex systems and wicked problems – complexity leadership (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008) – requires that the actors involved both influence and enable each other to accept collective responsibility for their collective problems and to act with collective purpose (Grint, 2010).

These processes of enactment may call forth temporary social systems, distributed forms of leadership, and novel patterning of social behaviour specific to the wicked problem at hand. Above all, the actors involved must want to solve the problem because it is important for them to do so; that is, they believe it is in their shared – that is common – interest to jointly solve their problem (i.e., “normative” compliance; Etzioni, 1964).

Further reading

Capra, F. (1997). The web of life: A new synthesis of mind and matter. London: Flamingo.

Capra, F. (2004). The hidden connections: A science for sustainable living. New York: Anchor Books.

Etzioni, A. (1964). Modern organizations. London: Prentice Hall.

Hogarth, R. (2001). Educating intuition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Grint, K. (2010). The cuckoo clock syndrome: Addicted to command, allergic to leadership. European Management Journal, 28, 306-313.

Kahane, A. (2012). Transformative scenario planning: Working together to change the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Uhl-Bien, M., & Marion, R. (2011). Complexity leadership theory. In A. Bryman, D, Collinson, K, Grint, B. Jackson, & M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.), The Sage handbook of leadership (pp. 469-482). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

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