Wicked problem  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"Wicked problem" is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem 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.

C. West Churchman introduced the concept of wicked problems in a "Guest Editorial" of Management Science (Vol. 14, No. 4, December 1967) by referring to "a recent seminar" by Professor Horst Rittel, and discussing the moral responsibility of Operations Research "to inform the manager in what respect our 'solutions' have failed to tame his wicked problems". Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formally described the concept of wicked problems in a 1973 treatise, contrasting "wicked" problems with relatively "tame," soluble problems in mathematics, chess, or puzzle solving.Template:Ref

Contents

Formal definitions

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber

Rittel and Webber's (1973) formulation of wicked problemsTemplate:Ref specifies ten characteristics, perhaps best considered in the context of social policy planning. According to Ritchey (2007)Template:Ref, the ten characteristics are:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  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, 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 (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Jeff Conklin

Seeking to generalize the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy, Conklin identifies the following as defining characteristics of wicked problems:Template:Ref

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation'
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Problem examples

Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.

In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness - examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge managementTemplate:Ref to business strategy.Template:Ref

Background and context

Rittel and Webber coined the term in the context of problems of social policy, an arena in which a purely scientific-rational approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of stakeholders.Template:Ref In their words, "The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail because of the nature of these problems...Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about 'optimal solutions' to these problems...Even worse, there are no solutions in the sense of definitive answers."

Thus wicked problems are also characterised by the following:

  1. The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
  2. Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  3. The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  4. The problem is never solved definitively.

Although Rittel and Webber framed the concept in terms of social policy and planning, wicked problems occur in any domain involving stakeholders with differing perspectives.Template:Ref Recognising this, Rittel and Kunz developed a technique called Issue-Based Information System (IBIS), which facilitates documentation of the rationale behind a group decision in an objective manner.Template:Ref

A recurring theme in research and industry literature is the connection between wicked problems and design.Template:RefTemplate:Ref Design problems are typically wicked because they are often ill defined (no prescribed way forward), involve Stakeholders with different perspectives, and have no "right" or "optimal" solution.Template:Ref Thus wicked problems cannot be solved by the application of standard (or known) methods; they demand creative solutions.Template:RefTemplate:Ref

Strategies to tackle wicked problems

Wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analysed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems. In a paper published in 2000, Roberts identifies the following strategies to cope with wicked problems:Template:Ref

Authoritative

These strategies seek to tame wicked problems by vesting the responsibility for solving the problems in the hands of a few people. The reduction in the number of stakeholders reduces problem complexity, as many competing points of view are eliminated at the start. The disadvantage is that authorities and experts charged with solving the problem may not have an appreciation of all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.

Competitive

These strategies attempt to solve wicked problems by pitting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with their preferred solutions. The advantage of this approach is that different solutions can be weighed up against each other and the best one chosen. The disadvantage is that this adversarial approach creates a confrontational environment in which knowledge sharing is discouraged. Consequently, the parties involved may not have an incentive to come up with their best possible solution.

Collaborative

These strategies aim to engage all stakeholders in order to find the best possible solution for all stakeholders. Typically these approaches involve meetings in which issues and ideas are discussed and a common, agreed approach is formulated. In his 1972 paper,Template:Ref Rittel hints at a collaborative approach; one which attempts, "…to make those people who are being affected into participants of the planning process . They are not merely asked but actively involved in the planning process…" A disadvantage of this approach is that achieving a shared understanding and commitment to solving a wicked problem is a time-consuming process. Research over the last two decades has shown the value of computer assisted argumentation techniques in improving the effectiveness of cross-stakeholder communication.Template:Ref More recently, the technique of dialogue mapping has been used in tackling wicked problems in organizations using a collaborative approach.Template:Ref

Problem Structuring Methods

A range of so-called Problem Structuring Methods have been developed in Operations Research since the 1970s to address problems involving complexity, uncertainty and conflict.

Related concepts

Messes and social messes

Russell L. Ackoff wrote about complex problems as messes: "Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess."Template:Ref

Extending Ackoff, Robert Horn says that "a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution."

According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:Template:Ref

  1. No unique “correct” view of the problem;
  2. Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
  3. Most problems are connected to other problems;
  4. Data are often uncertain or missing;
  5. Multiple value conflicts;
  6. Ideological and cultural constraints;
  7. Political constraints;
  8. Economic constraints;
  9. Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
  10. Numerous possible intervention points;
  11. Consequences difficult to imagine;
  12. Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
  13. Great resistance to change; and,
  14. Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

Wicked problems in software development

In the last decade, other computer scientistsTemplate:RefTemplate:Ref have pointed out that software development shares many properties with other design practices (particularly that people-, process-, and technology-problems have to be considered equally), and have incorporated Rittel's concepts into their software design methodologies. The design and integration of complex software-defined services that use the Web (Web services) can be construed as an evolution from previous models of software design, and therefore becomes a wicked problem also.

Super wicked problems

Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Steven Bernstein and Graeme Auld introduced in 2007 the distinction between "wicked" and "super wicked problems".Template:Ref They first presented International Studies Association Convention in Chicago, February 28 – March 3, 2007. They presented a revised version of the paper to the Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions Congress, 10–12 March 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark.

They defined super wicked problems as having the following additional characteristics:

  1. Time is running out.
  2. No central authority.
  3. Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
  4. Hyperbolic discounting occurs

See also





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