The many threads of wicked problems
In 1973, UC Berkeley professors, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, published a paper describing Wicked Problems. They said that the traditional scientific approach doesn’t work in solving social problems. Problem-solving in the industrial age focused on efficiency, and the challenges our scientists and engineers address are similar. They all focus on “tame” or “benign” problems, such as solving a mathematical equation or analyzing the chemical structure of an organic compound. For these, they say, “the mission is clear. It’s clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.” On the other hand, a wicked problem is one that’s not easy to describe, it has many causes, it’s hard or impossible to “solve.” It occurs in a social context where diverse stakeholders understand it differently.
A former teacher, Lily Eskelsen García, was president of the National Education Association. Representing public school teachers, the NEA is the country’s largest labor union. At a Campaign for America’s Future event, she told about the time she found herself sitting next to a talkative businessman on a plane.
He’s telling me where he’s going and what he’s doing and what his business is. And he says, “So what do you do, Darlin’?”
I said, “Well, I’m a teacher. And now I work with the National Education Association.
He stopped smiling and he said, “I’ve heard about you people.” He said, “I hear you need this and I hear you need that. Then I hear you need something else. To tell you the truth, Darlin’, I’m getting tired of hearing it. I’m a businessman. I want you to bottom line it for me. I want you to tell me right now what is the one single thing that would solve all of our problems in public schools?”
I said, “That’s easy, what we really need are fewer people who think there’s one single thing that would solve all of our problems in public schools.”
For example, explore what’s facing your local public schools and you may quickly find yourself tangled in a web of issues: lack of support, privatization, White flight, teachers unions, and vaccine and mask mandates. Public schools find themselves underfunded, undercut, under attack. And, of course, there’s poverty. Poverty adds daily challenges to students and their families. It thwarts whole communities, complicating everything. Add to these voting rights, political influence, who controls the school board and the media, and grassroots organizing.
This simple description here reflects my own biases. You likely see public schools from a different angle. Another person, say, the businessman on the plane, sees it differently from you and me. We all view the challenge in our unique way, and this adds to the wickedness of the challenges facing public schools. Pull on a single thread of any wicked problem and you quickly discover you’re pulling many, many threads.
— from Want to Change the World?
What are Wicked Problems?
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber describe Wicked Problems
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad [or better or worse].
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
- The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
Video explaining Wicked Problems from Systems Innovation. 9 min.