Wicked Problems

The California water crisis is an emblematic wicked problem. My personal awareness of the problem began in the 1950s, with the North American Water and Power Alliance proposing to divert British Columbia water to California. For many, awareness came with Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir film. Other people were much more directly affected – having to live their daily lives in a drought-ridden California, or becoming environmental refugees.

For passionate insight rather than raw emotion, the standard work is Marc Reisner’s (1948-2000) , Cadillac Desert, 1986. With the book being over 30 years old, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam have written a worthy follow-up, The West Without Water, 2013.

Two proposals for the massive transport of water from Canada to USA. (Illustration: Thomas Kierans, 2005)

Today’s weblog post is not about the California water crisis, as gruesome as it is for some, and could be for many more. It is about wicked problems. The essence of a wicked problem is that it is so complex, that it is impossible to understand all its implications. Any resolution will require a bespoke solution, which will only partially resolve disputes.

Wicked is a term used in operations research. Some practitioners  infrequently or never apply it, while others use it more extensively. Regardless, many hold it with reverence. Working with these ultimate problems has the potential to elevate or destroy one’s professional reputation. More importantly, resolution of a wicked problem may positively affect the lives of millions, in some cases – such as world poverty, billions of people.

Operations research as a subject area is, itself, often misunderstood. Part of the problem is that practitioners value precision to such a degree that they find it difficult to define words. Sometimes, one suspects, their motivation is to discourage or to impress  readers, rather than to clarify. In one common definition, the words advanced analytical methods appear. While most people may have a basic understanding of what method means, their understanding may be fuzzier when it comes to understanding the term analytical. Adding advanced onto that, just leaves people dumbfounded. A simpler approach is to define operations research as: the process of designing  solutions to complex problems.

Wicked problems arise when operations researchers feel out of their comfort zone, which is a very numerical place. Wicked problems usually involve several groups of people, stakeholders, who see a problem from many different, and sometimes opposing, perspectives. Challenges with wicked problems often begin with finding a suitable definition of a problem and end with finding a suitable stopping point for proposed solutions. By then other related problems are revealed or created of  because of complex interdependencies.

The term, wicked problem, originated with Horst Rittel (1930-1990) but was popularized by C. West Churchman (1913-2004), while both of them along with Melvin Webber (1920-2006) worked at The University of California, Berkeley. Churchman wanted operations research to take moral responsibility  “to inform the manager in what respect our ‘solutions’ have failed to tame his wicked problems” ( Churchman, C. West (December 1967). “Wicked Problems” Management Science  14 (4).) Tame problems are so simple, that they can be resolved using basic mathematical and other computational tools.

Rittel and Webber specified ten characteristics of wicked problems (Rittel, Horst W. J.; Webber, Melvin M. (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169)

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. 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.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Over thirty years later, Jeffrey Conklin (?-) generalized the concept (Conklin, Jeffrey (2006). Dialogue mapping : building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley):

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

A wicked problem is so interconnected with other problems that one can’t intervene somewhere without impacting something else. It involves incomplete or contradictory knowledge, a large number of people and opinions, a large economic burden either to live with it or to resolve it.


Nancy Roberts (1943?-) identified three strategies to cope with wicked problems. See: Roberts, N. C. (2000). “Wicked Problems and Network Approaches to Resolution”. International Public Management Review. 1 (1)

Authoritative. These strategies limit problem-solving to an elite group of stakeholders, typically including experts and those with financial or political weight. This reduces problem complexity, as many competing points of view are eliminated at the start. The disadvantage is that authorities and experts charged with solving the problem may not have an appreciation of all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.

Competitive. These strategies attempt to solve wicked problems by pitting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with their preferred solutions. The advantage of this approach is that different solutions can be weighed up against each other and the best one chosen. The disadvantage is that this adversarial approach creates a confrontational environment in which knowledge sharing is discouraged. Consequently, the parties involved may not have an incentive to come up with their best possible solution.

Collaborative. These strategies aim to engage all stakeholders in order to find the best possible solution for all stakeholders. Typically these approaches involve meetings in which issues and ideas are discussed and a common, agreed approach is formulated.

Before Roberts, the collaborative approach was the only one acknowledged, at least in public.


On the surface, wicked problems have a simple answer, and its name is IBIS, Issue-Based Information Systems.  What distinguishes IBIS from other solutions, is that it views design as argumentation.  That is, the design process requires people to reflect on the problem, deliberate, and to argue for and against different perspectives. It is also instrumental. Yes, another big word, which in this case refers to something being goal oriented. (Hulme, Mike (2009). Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge University Press.)

Computer-based versions of IBIS are  available in Windows (up to version 8), Mac and Linux variants,   at:  http://compendiumld.open.ac.uk/download.html . While IBIS was conceived in 1968, it had to await for appropriate technology to become an effective tool. Using hypertext data-structures, the latest incarnation was  implemented by Douglas E. Noble (?-).

Social Media

Much social media discussion involves wicked problems, but without the poster understanding that they are dealing with such a comprehensive issue. Instead, much of the discussion may involve a very specific personal challenge, deliberately isolated from its context. From there responses are solicited, ranging from a like to a supportive comment. Yet, the response may be anything but positive. While the first poster’s position may be attacked, not infrequently there will personal attacks as well.

It is here that social media fails. It is very effective at allowing people to trumpet out problems, but does nothing to help people manage or resolve them. Where is the social media IBIS that will allow social media users to put their problems into perspective?

Social media users facing wicked problems need help to argue for their perspectives. This is very different from a vitriolic attack. They need help to structure a design problem, and to participate with others in a design solution, a process where they can reflect on that problem, deliberate and to argue for and against different perspectives, and come up with a solution that is better than the current situation.

Coming sooner or later: Russell L. Ackoff on Social Messes.