The Wicked Problem of Wicked Problems

Submitted by Cameron Norman on February 13, 2012 - 5:03pm
What does this mean for planning?

I was excited to learn that Jon Kolko and his creative band of learners at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) are coming out with a book on wicked problems. As one who studies and helps others to intervene in addressing such problems, this was like being a Star Trek fan learning thatLeonard Nimoy was coming to speak at the Trekkie convention in my hometown. It is refreshing to see that the concept of the wicked problem is gaining traction beyond the small band of scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of complexity, systems and design thinking (which, admittedly is where many AC4D folk inhabit, but hopefully their audience will not).

But it’s not just one book. We are seeing transformations in education and science — with calls for a‘new breed of scientist’ being created at places like Massey University in New Zealand — or spread through the news or business stories in various forms.

The concept of the wicked problem was originally posed by management science scholar and systems thinker C. West Churchman with planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. TheWikipedia entry on wicked problems provides some examples of what these things are:

Classic examples of wicked problems include economicenvironmental, 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[4]natural hazardshealthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug traffickinghomeland securitynuclear 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 management[5] to business strategy.[6]

As our social lives become more interconnected through the Internet, globalization, and mass migration, the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in grows. More of anything in diverse forms interacting together is likely to create complexity as new properties emerge and those properties change the trajectory of actions and reactions of the parts dynamically.

As one who is interested in wicked problems and works with people to address them, I should be thrilled to see the term used so widely. I am, but cautiously so. There is a risk that in the enthusiasm to embrace the lexicon of complexity that the meaning gets lost, which is what one gets from thehype cycle (See below).


The Hype Cycle: Coming to a Wicked Problem Near You?

The hype cycle is described as phenomonena initiated by a technology (or idea) and, once caught on, spikes the expectations beyond reason leading to discouragement, mass abandonment of the idea, and then — hopefully — a return to a level of reasonable return.

While the “cycle” (it is not a cycle) has limitations, the analogy here is well suited to fads of various types and the rapid ascension of the concept “wicked problem” in past years is indicative of a trend. Below are two representations of the amount of citations of the work “wicked problem” and “wicked problems” from Google’s Ngram service:


Wicked Problem Citations: 1950-2008


Wicked Problem(s) Citations: 1973-2008

It appears that wicked problems (plural) are increasing and reference to a single problem is staying the same.

Regardless, an upward trend is evident. What it means is another matter…

If wicked problems are becoming talked about more often and by more people, it is appropriate to ask what kind of impact that this new thinking will have on not only the way the problems are posed, but how people seek to address them.

To that end, it is worth envisioning the future with caution. One of the reasons for this is that wicked problems are often not wholly wicked in their composition or the strategy required to address the problem — which ironically makes these types of problems even more wicked.

This has to do with the interconnected, multidimensional, and embedded nature of the problems themselves which contain within them many interconnected non-wicked problems. I’ve started to see difficulties with organizations developing strategy that fails to consider this. It is, as I’ve discussed before, an artefact of either-or thinking. Tackling the kind of wicked problems like poverty, chronic disease, and global finance require a meta-level strategy that recognizes, shapes and adapts to complexity, while accounting for micro-level issues that are indeed, very linear and simple.

Finding, training and retaining the right talent to work with diverse communities on problems that are poorly supported or funded from many sources is wicked. The human resource needs for payroll, supply management, and field support might be much less so. Yet, both are joined-up and require strategies that can extend beyond traditional management and strategy, but also embrace some of the very ‘best practices’ that seem at the outset to be antithetical to complexity.

Just as I shake my head in frustration at seeing complexity dealt with using amplified linear strategies that ‘do the wrong things righter‘, I have surprised myself by how much I’ve been twitching at hearing recent converts to systems thinking rail against the traditional ways of planning as if anything other than seeing problems as complex would be wrong.

At issue is that wicked problems are made more so by having both complex and non-complex elements working together, requiring a level of strategy development that is far more sophisticated than many first thought. Even a review of the better management texts using complexity give short shrift to the relationship between the complex, the simple and the complicated working simultaneously in environments and how we plan for that. The Cynefin Framework provides a start, but just a start.

Until we recognize this complexity — no pun intended — in the way we plan, there is great risk of replicating the hype cycle when our sole use complexity-based models yield poor results of a different nature than the poor results we are seeing from traditional linear, reductionist thinking models applied to many of the problems we deem as wicked today.

Picture credits: A Close Up on Knotted Rope by Sundariel used under Creative Commons License from DeviantArt

Graph: Gartner Hype Cycle by Jeremy Kemp used under licence from Wikipedia.