Wicked Problems

Jay Rosen from NYU warns us to beware of wicked problems, a particularly nasty class of problems we often face. What is a wicked problem?

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)

Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change. What could be more inter-connected than it? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem–our entire way of life, perhaps — and he or she would not be wrong. We’ve certainly never solved anything like it before. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.

Sounds like a lot of common problems I’ve dealt with, in discussing policy choices or having debates (both personal and academic). Perhaps the most dangerous trap when faced with a wicked problem is not recognizing the problem you are facing is wicked:

Still, we would be better off if we knew when we were dealing with a wicked problem, as opposed to the regular kind. If we could designate some problems as wicked we might realize that “normal” approaches to problem-solving don’t work. We can’t define the problem, evaluate possible solutions, pick the best one, hire the experts and implement. No matter how much we may want to follow a routine like that, it won’t succeed. Institutions may require it, habit may favor it, the boss may order it, but wicked problems don’t care.

So, is all lost when a wicked problem is on the table? Rosen believes it takes a certain class of individual to tackle a wicked problem:

Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas because they know they are going to have to alter them. They know there’s no right place to start so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they’re more likely to understand the problem after its “solved” than before. They don’t expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they’ve found something that’s good enough. They’re never convinced that they know enough to solve the problem, so they are constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders.

Hopefully, some of these creative, pragmatic, and collaborative folks are ready for the biggest problems facing humanity – these problems are most likely to be wicked ones.

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2 comments

  1. […] Why don’t we have a clear discourse in policy debates? Politicians and pundits alike are always suggesting we “have an honest conversation about [insert issue].” Well, having an honest conversation involves some basic understanding of the issue at hand – and in particular, an understanding of the complexities and tradeoffs involved in the issue. (This last one especially applies to economic issues, since many economic policy debates could easily be categorized as wicked problems.) […]

  2. […] much more work to be done. But it’s good to know that in the fact of such a tremendous and wicked problem, not all hope is […]

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