Wicked Problems

I remember the first time I came across the term “wicked problems” — I was flipping through the 2009 Winter edition of Rotman Management, and I remember being transfixed by the elegance of the term and the accuracy of it.

Wicked problems. Huh, how perfect.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Wikipedia has an expansive definition, but I love the second sentence:

The term ‘wicked’ is used to denote resistance to resolution

Often, “wicked problem” is used as it relates to larger social problems like poverty, health, equality, et al. – the big bogies. I won’t attempt to broaden the definition but I want to talk about how folks are approaching solving wicked problems and why that should even matter to those of us who aren’t dealing with that scale.

Solving for “wicked”
Not surprisingly, wicked problems aren’t tackled by 1+1 = 2. If they were that simple, we wouldn’t be calling them wicked.

You know what? There are a few words which keep cropping up, so let’s talk about them.

Words that matter
Integrate. Systems. Flexible. Collaborate. Teams. Design. Resonance. Ambiguity. Optimism. Ideation. Synthesis. Interaction.

How do you feel when you hear those words? Does it feel very “buzzwordy”? Maybe a bit “touchy-feely”? Or does it invoke some discomfort? Too broad? Too much?

We’re getting into murky territory and it should be discomforting, and it should evoke a bit of uneasiness and that’s because: a) we don’t like to tackle wicked problems because b) we don’t know how.

Why this matters
On May 30th, the New York Times published this great piece called “Why You Hate Work” and the lead sentence is perfect:

The way we’re working isn’t working.

It goes on to provide charts and proof about lack of engagement, the lack of space to think and really struggle with things, a failure of community and collaboration, and inability to link activities to real value and progress, and so and so forth.

And the most startling thing about it is that this isn’t news.

So, why did I start with “wicked problems” and end with “why you [we] hate work?”

All problems deserve “wicked treatment”
Rome wasn’t built in a day; a wicked problem was never solved in one, either; and not a single one of them could be done by a single person.

We want to solve wicked problems because they matter

We want to do work that matters, we need work that is difficult enough to require that we grow, and while it’s nice to get a bit of solo praise, people need people and so:

We want to do work that matters, that is difficult and so forces us to learn and to grow, and we want to do that with other people.

Our daily jobs may not alleviate poverty in third world countries, it may not reduce the number of infant deaths due to malnutrition and/or unsanitary conditions, it may not stem the flow of viral diseases–

But our daily jobs need to matter and if we can treat them like we do wicked problems, if we can do things which require us to be creative, to reach outside of boxes and connect with others, to be comfortable in cases where we don’t have all the answers up front and to be given the space to move forward anyway, if we can apply the “wicked treatment” where at all possible, I think we’re all better off for it.

What do you think?


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  1. Yes. Wickedly spot on! 🙂
    I have two more “words that matter” for you:
    e-Deliberation, at http://www.e-Deliberation.com – a platform designed to help multi-stakeholder groups come to terms with wicked problems, and
    The VSM – the Viable System Model: an understanding of the invariable characteristics which delineate how complex-adaptive organisms and organizations ensure their viability, by Stafford Beer, aka the Father of management cybernetics.
    Together, the two solve a lot of wickedness.


  2. You make the same error that most people make. Talk about “solving” wicked problems when by definition they cannot be solved. It’s better to think “grappled with,” “taming” “managed,” etc. There is no solving with wicked problems, only temporary arrangements that must be continuously revisited and revised. Joe Bentley

    1. I think I must gently disagree with you; it’s not that they can’t be solved, but they’re not as simple as 1+1=2. Framing matters; context matters; your recurring solutions, the “revisiting and revision” that you mention, is not encountering the same problem as it was, it’s encountering another symptom, another variation, another flavor of something that may have been “solved” but is now back again. That said, I appreciate you pointing out that it’s not a simple thing – but to accept unsolvable as a starting point, for me, feels a bit too much.

      1. John: Of course it all depends upon what you mean by “solved!” If you mean fixed and finished then it doesn’t work. I have been looking in vain for a list of “solved” wicked problems: extreme poverty? air pollution? highway congestion? quality education? homelessness? health care for all? and on and on. These will always be with us! If you define your goal narrowly, i. e. ” The problem is I need to lose five pounds,” then it can be solved. But this is not a wicked problem! What is wicked is “Healthy Life Style” something that needs to be worked on into the foreseeable future, is never is over, never gets solved.

        If you can send me a list of “solved” wicked problems, that would be great! Rather than “solved” what works better is “taming wicked problems” a continuous process of moving forward.

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