Recently (mid 2020), we keep hearing the phrase “wicked problems” being used by politicians, those who lobby them, and their advisors. Someone is obviously doing the executive seminar and workshop rounds on this one. So, we thought it might be worth a second airing. Originally published in 2008.)
It’s just life!
Isn’t the phrase ‘wicked problems’ a good one? Putting on my best streetwise accent, I can hear myself say “Wicked, man!” But things are not as they may seem.
The academics who invented the term did not have wicked thoughts, let alone thoughts about wicked problems (at least not in the reputable academic publications in which they developed the idea). It’s all much more innocent. In the context in which the idea was first written about—a discussion of planning theory—wicked was not contrasted with good. No naughtiness was anywhere in sight. The term wicked was contrasted with tame.
I suspect that if people knew that in the esoteric context of planning theory, the opposite of ‘wicked’ was ‘tame’ then we would have all been spared the endless repetition of the wicked problem problem. But, that’s the way it is.
It is now fashionable for organizations to have wicked problems. Indeed, if your organisation doesn’t have one, you might as well shut up shop. Without a wicked problem you cannot play with the other fashionable management toys of design thinking and innovation. You are an organisational dinosaur, doomed to extinction, or worse: doing what you do now, only possibly a little better. How dull, and not a bit wicked.
But the whole thing is a sham The world is not full of problems waiting to be solved, wicked or otherwise. There is just life and the messy uncertain business of coping with it.
Horste Rittel and Melvin Webber, the men who coined the phrase ‘wicked problems’, suggested there were 10 defining characteristics of wicked problems. I present them below, substituting ‘life’ for ‘wicked problem’ and ‘person’ for ‘planner’, With some minor grammatical and contextual adaptations, you will see that there is a good fit.
1. There is no definitive formulation of life.
2. Life has no stopping rule (except death or suicide).
3. Life is not true-or-false, just better or worse.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a successful or unsuccessful life.
5. Every life is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to start again, every life counts significantly.
6. Life does not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential outcomes, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into life’s plan.
7. Every life is essentially unique.
8. Every life can be considered to be a consequence of another life.
9. The existence of a discrepancy in life can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of what we do.
10. A person has no right to be wrong. People are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate
It’s because Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber are offering us a recognisable description of our own daily struggle, not something in the least esoteric, that the idea of wicked problems resonates so well with many of us.
But how can I claim that there are no problems? Imagine an empty universe with no life, just the movement and occasional collision of galaxies, stars, planets, moons and comets. Are there problems in this lifeless universe? No, it just is. Now imagine a world with just animals, plants, microbes and stuff. Where are the problems? There are none.
It’s only when we think of the world we live in, the world of people, that we can talk about problems. Problems are a human invention. Problems are the bits of life that we don’t like and think we might be able to change. If we believe we cannot change things, or do not want to change them, we don’t have any problems.
So calling something a problem is a very human thing to do. As such it is subject to all the vagaries of humanity.
Consider the ‘problem’ of global warming. Today’s best scientific opinion says that global warming is a fact. It is measurable. It is happening. The scientific opinion also says that we—people—are the cause of it. We could just shrug our shoulders and do nothing, put up with the coming apocalypse, but that is not the human way. No, we call global warming a problem and then feel compelled to act, to solve the problem. Caught up in the moral fervor of our time, some people think that to do nothing would be wicked. Would that make the wicked a wicked problem? What a wicked suggestion!
Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber; “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” pp. 155-169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973.