In 1973 Rittel and Webber developed the term Wicked Problems further, having identified the idea some years prior. They argued that “The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems”. They go on to argue that:
“They are ‘wicked’ problems, whereas science has developed to deal with ‘tame’ problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described.
Moreover, in a pluralistic society, there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false;
And it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions’ to social problems unless stringent qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no solutions in the sense of definitive and objective answers”.
This implies that we cannot deploy any existing “intellectual toolkit” to craft a solution. Essentially, we have to accept that even drawing on Einstein’s insight that “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them” will not save us. We struggle to, but must, raise our thinking to a stratospheric level.
Since the seminal paper of 1973, the concept of wicked problems has evolved to mean many things to many people. Initially, they were envisaged as bringing to the fore the challenges faced in a policy and planning context. However, the relevance of their features and characteristics has become meme-like. In addition, Social Messes and Clumsy, rather than Elegant, solutions exist side by side, adding to the complex mix outside the organisations’ boundaries.
The original ten characteristics identified by Rittel and Webber are broadly described. This enables different ends to be selected by proponents – predictably in a way that benefits their self-interest. Such opportunistic trade-offs provide an opportunity to, for instance, call relatively common problems – albeit ones with a high degree of complexity – wicked problems. In many situations, this becomes a way to avoid tackling issues altogether!
The helpful addition of four additional characteristics to supplement the original ten – described as ‘super wicked problems’ provides us with further signposts, enhancing clarity.
It does not help that the words ‘wicked’ and ‘problem’, separately or together, can be glibly dropped into spoken and written narratives when confronting adversity. This dilution of meaning devalues the concept itself. When considering how best to resolve Wicked Challenges™ within organisations, we should bear this in mind.
We believe that taking account of the constraints imposed by time and perspective, while factoring in governance and the roles of actors or stakeholders, we can adapt and build on the framework to address Wicked Challenges™ within organisations.
Effectively, they present a somewhat pessimistic view on a class of seemingly intractable problems that have increased in number, complexity, and impact in the ensuing forty-nine years.
“In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil”.
“You don’t understand a problem until you have developed a solution. Every solution exposes new aspects of the problem that require adjustment. There is no definitive problem as such but rather one that seemingly releases itself as aspects that can be dealt are dealt to leaving the unknown (and potentially unknowable) behind.”
Time to see your trickiest challenges in an innovative new way! In this paper, we identify a different kind of challenge that could be inhibiting or worse risking your whole organisation. We describe it's Essential and Supplementary Elements and provide a Six IT approach to resolving it.