Wicked problems

Wicked problems

See also: Social messes

“Wicked problems are complex problems that change when you apply a solution.”

Wicked problems, Wikipedia.

Wicked Problems: Structuring Social Messes with Morphological Analysis, Swedish Morphological Society.

If you work in an organisation that deals with long-term social, commercial or financial planning, then you’ve got wicked problems! You may not call them by this name, but you know what they are. They are those complex, ever changing societal and organisational planning problems that you haven’t been able to treat with much success, because you haven’t even been able to structure and define them properly. They’re messy, devious, and they fight back when you try to “solve” them. So you just live with them!

First, let’s look at what characterises a tame problem (Conklin, J, 2001, p.11). A tame problem

  • has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement.

  • has a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when the solution or a solution is reached.

  • has a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.

  • belongs to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar manner.

  • has solutions which can be tried and abandoned.

Wicked problems are completely different. Wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous and associated with strong moral, political and professional issues. Since they are strongly stakeholder dependent, there is often little consensus about what the problem is, let alone how to resolve it. Furthermore, wicked problems won’t keep still: they are sets of complex, interacting issues evolving in a dynamic social context. Often, new forms of wicked problems emerge as a result of trying to understand and solve one of them.

Ten Criteria for Wicked Problems, Swedish Morphological Society, citing H. Rittel and M. Webber.

Guidance for solving wicked problems, Swedish Morphological Society, citing Jonathan Rosenhead.

Modeling Complex Socio-Technical Systems using Morphological Analysis, Tom Ritchey.

Morphological analysis is a general method for structuring and analysing complex problem fields which 1) are inherently non-quantifiable; 2) contain non-resolvable uncertainties (both antagonistic and non-specified uncertainty); and 3) cannot be causally modelled or simulated in a meaningful way.

In his book from 1974 titled “Redesigning the Future”, the operational analyst Russell Ackoff defined three levels of complex problems. The first level he called a mess (also known as a “wicked problem” (Ritchey, 2005)). A mess is a complex issue, which does not yet have a well-defined form or structure. When you have a mess, you don’t even know for sure what the problem is yet. Here is an example of a mess, that our National Rescue Services Agency asked us to help with some years ago: What are we going to do with the Swedish bomb shelter programme now that the cold war has ended? This is complex issue which concerns money, technology, ethics, politics, everything! And all of these different aspects must be treated together –and dealt with as a whole. All of the really important issues in the world start out as messes. And all of us come into contact with messes on a daily basis.

The next level is what Ackoff calls a problem. This is an issue that does have a defined form or structure; it is dimensioned; it has variables and we know something about how these variables interact. But it does not have any one, single, clear-cut solution. As long it is a problem – in Ackoff’s use of the term – it has many different, alternative solutions “depending on”. Depending on, for example: how much money we have; what type of technology is going to be available; who is in political power; what the weather is going to be like? Since we may not know these things yet, we have to leave the problem’s solution open to different hypotheses about how the future might turn out.

The last level is called a puzzle. A puzzle is a well-defined and well-structured problem with a specific solution that somebody can work out. Morphological analysis was explicitly developed to work at the level of messes and problems. More specifically, MA is used to turn messes into (structured) problems. 

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, H. Rittel and M. Webber, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, (1973) pp 155-169.

Wicked problems, Robert Horn and Robert Weber Weber, Strategy Kinetics [blog]

How to solve the most ‘wicked’ problems, Chris Burroughs, Sandia Lab News, 26 October 2007.

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
14 May 2008