Wicked Problems

Rittel and Webber (1973) first coined the term ‘wicked problem’, distinguishing urban planning and policy problems from the ‘tame problems’ of science and engineering. The term ‘wicked problem’ is best described and understood not with a formal definition, but rather with a list of defining characteristics. Conklin (2006) slightly expands on Rittel’s and Webber’s original list, and makes it less dependent on a planning and policy context.

  • There is no definitive specification of a wicked problem. The problem can’t be defined until the solution has been found.  You can’t wait to fully understand the problem before starting to solve the problem.
  • The existence of symptoms representing a wicked problem can be explained many different ways, and the choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it. Every question seeking more information depends upon the understanding of the problem – and its resolution – at the time.
  • Wicked problems do not have a discrete, finite set of potential solutions.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, or right-or-wrong, or correct-or-incorrect; they are good-or-bad.
  • Wicked problems do not have a well-described set of permissible operations, actions, or interventions that may be incorporated into the solution plan.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. That is, it is difficult or impossible to clearly determine or create a test to determine whether the problem has been solved.
  • There is no opportunity to learn about the problem and its solution by trial and error, so every solution to a wicked problem is essentially a ‘one-shot operation’.
  • Every wicked problem is novel, and essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

References

Conklin, J. 2006. Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Rittel, H.W.J. and Webber, M.M. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4:155-169.