Social Messes

Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking in a management context, wrote about problems in complex social systems (1974):

“We have also come to realize that no problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems… I choose to call such a system a mess.” (p21)

Robert Horn expanded on Ackoff’s notion of ‘mess’, combined it with Rittel’s and Webber’s notion of ‘wicked problem‘, and situated it explicitly in the context of difficult social problems:

“A social mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity – systems of systems – is among the factors that makes social messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” (p6)

The characteristics of a social mess are:

  • There is no unique ‘correct’ view of the problem.
  • There are different views of the problem and contradictory solutions.
  • Most problems are connected to other problems.
  • Data are often uncertain or missing.
  • There are multiple value conflicts.
  • There are ideological and cultural constraints.
  • There are political constraints.
  • There are economic constraints.
  • They often involve a-logical, illogical, or multi-valued thinking.
  • There are many possible intervention points.
  • The consequences of an intervention are difficult to imagine.
  • There is considerable uncertainty and ambiguity: in the system and in the problem definition.
  • There is great resistance to change.
  • Problem solvers are often out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.


Ackoff, R.L. 1974. Redesigning the future: A systems approach to societal problems. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Horn, R. and Weber, R.P. 2007. New tools for resolving wicked problems. White paper. MacroVU, Inc. and Strategy Kinetics, LLC. 34pp.