This is my list of characteristics of a Wicked Problem. The term was first described by Rittel and Webber in 1973, and their focus then was on issues of policy. There have been some adaptations since. Here it goes:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
- Wicked problems have a no stopping rule.
- Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, true-or-false, but good or bad.
- 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.
- Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
Other than feeling a bit depressed by the concept, look around and see if you spot one of them. I think you’ll find a few, from the fixing of a health care system to ‘how do you solve a problem like Trump’?
Some things are just too complex to fix with one approach, one toolkit, one ‘solution provider’. The challenge for organizations is how to avoid complex problems becoming wicked problems; how do you put in place measures, so that you don’t have to address this kind of trap.
Complexity is addictive. It has an initial attraction and then a self-reinforcing mechanism kicks in, which makes it bigger and bigger.
Process, systems and behavioural diets are needed in order to avoid the lack of control. If you enter in the wicked problems territory, it’s not the end of the world, but you are in the hands of, one go, one shot, and very little manoeuvering.
Just being mindful of their existence, may be a big step to their avoidance.
And slightly better mental health for you.