The term ‘wicked problem’ was used here last week to describe the challenges of humanitarian coordination. This post is a response to a number of requests to explain a little more about this concept.

The term ‘wicked problem’ was originally proposed by two American urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, in the 1970s. The term has since been applied to a whole host of social, economic and political problems that cannot be successfully navigated with traditional linear, analytical approaches.

Regardless of the context, wicked problems are said to have some key common characteristics, which include the following:

  1. Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define The nature and extent of the problem depends on who has been asked and different stakeholders have different versions of what the problem is.
  2. Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal. Successfully addressing wicked policy problems usually involves a range of coordinated and interrelated responses, given their multi-causal nature; it also often involves trade-offs between conflicting goals.
  3. Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences. Because wicked policy problems are multi-causal with many interconnections to other issues, measures introduced to address the problem frequently lead to unforeseen consequences elsewhere.
  4. Wicked problems are often not stable Often a wicked problem and the constraints or evidence involved in understanding the problem are evolving at the same time that policy makers are trying to address the policy problem. Policy makers have to focus on a moving target.
  5. Wicked problems usually have no clear solution Since there is no definitive, stable problem there is often no definitive solution to wicked problems. Problem-solving often ends when deadlines are met, or as dictated by other resource constraints rather than when the ‘correct’ solution is identified.  To pursue approaches based on ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ may cause policy makers to act on unwarranted and unsafe assumptions and create unrealistic expectations.
  6. Wicked problems are socially complex. The social complexity of wicked problems, rather than their technical complexity, overwhelms most current problem-solving and project management approaches. Solutions to wicked problems usually involve coordinated action by a range of stakeholders working at every level from the international to the local.
  7. Wicked problems involve changing behaviour. The solutions to many wicked problems involve changing the behaviour and/or gaining the commitment of individual citizens.
  8. Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure. Some longstanding wicked problems seem intractable. Development has many examples where the persistence of a problem has not been because of a lack of sustained effort.

Wicked problems are often contrasted with tame problems. The latter are not necessarily simple – in fact, they can often be very technically complex. But they are distinguishable from wicked problems, first because they can be clearly and tightly defined and second because they do have readily identifiable solutions.

Attempting to tame wicked problems is a very natural and common way of coping with the challenges they pose to policy and practice. Instead of dealing with the full extent of a wicked problem, we – and by extension the organisations we work for – often simplify them in various ways to make them more manageable and solvable.

This ‘taming’ happens in a number of ways, according to Jeff Conklin, who also notes that:

…while it may seem appealing in the short run, attempting to tame a wicked problem will always fail in the long run. The problem will simply reassert itself, perhaps in a different guise, as if nothing had been done; or worse, the tame solution will exacerbate the problem…”

Here are some of the common strategies employed for taming wicked problems, as observed by Conklin. All of these will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.

  1. Lock down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the problem. Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s success.
  2. Cast the problem as ‘just like’ a previous problem that has been solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates or messes up the picture.
  3. Give up on trying to find a good solution. Just follow orders, do your job and try not to get in trouble.
  4. Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on selecting from among them. A specific way to do this is to frame the problem in ‘either/or’ terms, such as ‘Should we attack Iraq OR let the terrorists take over the world?’

All of this leads me to the following question: Are Aid Agencies Problem Solvers or Problem Tamers?

PS For those interested in finding out more – there is a large and growing literature on this topic. A good starting point, as always, is the source material for the Wikipedia entry, available here.

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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. Hi Aid At The Edge: This is a great topic and very useful for what we are trying to do in the Market Facilitation Initiative (MaFI). We are promoting an initiative (provisionally called the MaFI-festo) to explore with donors and practitioners how to develop or change rules and principles in international aid that foster facilitation approaches and systemic thinking/planning.

    It would be great to know from readers of this blog who are pursuing similar objectives.

    Best regards,
    Lucho Osorio
    MaFI Facilitator and
    International Coordinator –
    Markets and Livelihoods programme
    Practical Action

    PS: This blog is automatically fed into MaFI in LinkedIn and is a great generator of discussions in MaFI. Well done!

    Reply
  2. […] of accountability such as social or political accountability, which might be more appropriate to ‘wicked problems’ and complex environments made up of multiple actors, are either poorly understood or not considered […]

    Reply
  3. […] and conflict-affected contexts. He argued in this article that fragile states are best seen as ‘wicked problems’. Take a look at the characteristics of wicked problems below, and think about situations like […]

    Reply
  4. Do greater than is needed. What is the distance between somebody who achieves their goals consistently and those that spend their lives and careers merely following? Further.
    Among the true tests of leadership may be the ability to recognize an issue before it becomes an emergency.

    Reply
  5. Re: “Wicked Problems”, we thought that you might like to know about this:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at Springer here:

    http://www.springer.com/business+%26+management/technology+management/book/978-3-642-19652-2

    Regards,

    Tom Ritchey
    SweMorph

    Reply

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a freelance consultant and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.

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Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Public Policy, Strategy