What is A Wicked Problem and How Can You Solve It?

What is A Wicked Problem and How Can You Solve It?

by Euphemia Wong | | 31 min read

Have you ever come across a problem so complex that you struggled to know where to start? Then you have stumbled upon a wicked problem. While these problems may not have a definite solution, there are certainly things you can do to mitigate any negative effects. When you learn how to tackle wicked problems, you learn how to improve the world and the lives of the people who live in it. Here, you’ll learn the 10 characteristics of a wicked problem and five steps to tackle wicked problems.

What Is a Wicked Problem?

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that’s difficult or impossible to solve—normally because of its complex and interconnected nature. Wicked problems lack clarity in both their aims and solutions, and are subject to real-world constraints which hinder risk-free attempts to find a solution.

Classic examples of wicked problems are these:

  • Poverty
  • Climate change
  • Education
  • Homelessness
  • Sustainability

What is the Difference between Puzzles, Problems and Wicked Problems?

Let’s create an overview by first looking into the difference between a puzzle and a problem, and then afterwards we’ll examine wicked problems.

Which Wicked Problems Do We Need to Deal with?

Many of the design problems we face are wicked problems, where clarifying the problem is often as big a task as solving it. Or perhaps even bigger. Wicked problems are problems with many interdependent factors making them seem impossible to solve as there is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is often a social or cultural problem. For example, how would you try to solve global issues such as poverty… or education? What about climate change, and access to clean drinking water? It’s hard to know where to begin, right? That’s because they’re all wicked problems.

What makes them even worse is the way they’re intertwined with one another. If you try to address an element of one problem, you’ll likely cause unexpected consequences in another. No wonder they’re wicked! It’s clear to see that standard problem-solving techniques just aren’t going to cut it when you’ve got a wicked problem on your hands.

You’ll need to gain a much deeper insight into the people involved and learn how to reframe the problem entirely if you want to have any sort of chance at coming up with a valuable solution.

10 Characteristics of a Wicked Problem

As you can see, we need to dig deeper to understand the essence of wicked problems. Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, first coined the term wicked problem in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (1973). In the paper, they detail ten important characteristics that describe a wicked problem:

  1. There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule—there’s no way to know whether your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false; they can only be good or bad.
  4. You cannot immediately test 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 a set number of potential solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
  9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual’s perspective.
  10. The planner/designer has no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for their actions.

Author/Copyright holder: LoraCBR. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

Wicked problems are much like this sketchnote—it’s hard to know where or how to begin, let alone find a solution!

We still face the classic wicked problems in today’s world; however, there are further examples we now have to consider. Business strategy, for example, is now often classed as a wicked problem because strategy-related issues normally meet at least five of the characteristics listed above.

So, how can you start to tackle wicked problems, both old and new? Let’s look at how design thinking—more specifically, systems thinking and agile methodology—can help us start to untangle the web of a wicked problem.

Wicked Problems and Design Thinking

The design theorist and academic Richard Buchanan connected design thinking to the innovation necessary to begin tackling wicked problems. Originally used in the context of social planning, the term “wicked problems” had been popularized in the paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” (1992) by Buchanan. Various thought leaders following Buchanan continued on to suggest we utilize systems thinking when faced with complex design problems, but what does that look like in practice for a designer tackling a wicked problem and how can we integrate it with collaborative, agile methodology?

A Combination of Systems Thinking and Agile Methodology Can Help You Tackle Wicked Problems

Design thinkers proceeded to highlight how we utilize systems thinking when faced with complex design problems.

  • Systems thinking is the process of understanding how components of a system influence each other as well as other systems—and therefore it’s pretty much perfect for wicked problems!
  • And it’s even better when combined with agile methodology, an iterative approach to design and product development. Agile methodology helps to improve solutions through collaboration. This agile, collaborative environment breeds the ability to be efficient and effectively meet the stakeholders’ changing requirements.

Together, systems thinking and agile methodology lead us to a better solution at each iteration as they both evolve with the wicked problem.

Author/Copyright holder: Yuval Yeret. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

In an agile methodology, every iteration incorporates feedback from the previous release. This process can help you tackle wicked problems when it’s combined with systems thinking.

5 Ways to Apply Systems Thinking and Agile Methodology in Your Work

If you’ve been faced with a wicked problem in the past, you’ll have undoubtedly experienced frustration from not knowing where or how to begin. There’s no shame in that—issues which are difficult or nearly impossible to solve will do that to a person! The next time you and your team must tackle a wicked problem, you can use these five handy methods which are based on systems thinking and agile methodology:

  1. Break down information into nodes and links.
  2. You can utilize systems thinking if you break the information down into nodes (chunks of information such as objects, people or concepts) and links (the connections and relationships between the nodes). This will make your private mental models (your representations of external reality) visible to the outside world and help you face wicked problems more effectively. Jay Wright Forrester, a pioneer in computer engineering and systems science, put it nicely when he said:

    The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.

    Author/Copyright holder: Tom Wujec. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 3.0

    In this illustration, the nodes are circled in red and the links are the red lines drawn between the nodes. All four illustrations are systems models that participants created from Tom Wujec’s workshops on collaborative visualization and systems thinking.

  3. Visualize the information.
  4. When you sketch out and place information into a physical space, it will help both you and your team take in and understand the systems at hand—as well as the relationships within and between them.

  5. Collaborate and include stakeholders in the process.
  6. Share your mental models to help other people build on your ideas, and vice versa. Your team can synthesize several points of view when you create physical drawings and group notes to produce different systems models.

  7. Release solutions quickly to gather continuous feedback.
  8. Feedback of success helps to solve problems which we don’t have one single obviously correct answer for. The more feedback you gather from your users and stakeholders, the more guidance you’ll have to get to the next step.

  9. Carry out multiple iterations.
  10. You and your team have the chance to utilize feedback at each iteration. The more iterations you do, the more likely you’ll determine what changes are needed to further improve the solution to your wicked problem.

You’ll build a bridge between the existing solution and the next iteration when you combine user and stakeholder feedback with your team’s thoughts and ideas.

Walmart: An Example of How Wicked Problems Led to Disaster

Walmart, a North American multinational retail corporation, faces its fair share of wicked problems. The large global company’s major challenge is to speed up growth, and its struggles exhibit many characteristics of a wicked problem.

Firstly, Walmart cannot immediately test potential solutions (4th characteristic) to their wicked problem as these solutions often generate unexpected consequences. For example, Walmart attempted to shift their brand to appeal to higher-income customers during the mid-2000s. In 2005, they started to re-brand themselves and launched a high-fashion campaign in Vogue, a high-fashion and lifestyle magazine. They also presented fashion shows in New York and opened an office in Manhattan’s Fashion District. This shift in brand proposition proved to be a “one-shot operation” as it had not been done before, and this made it difficult to measure its effectiveness—there is no way to test a one-shot solution at full capacity on such a large scale. The result was that, by 2008, massive layoffs shut down two divisions at Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas. Their attempt to become a high-fashion brand proved to be a disaster.

Secondly, the root of their problem is often considered to be another problem (8th characteristic). For example, the low-cost practice of Walmart, which was originally advantageous, is now vulnerable to the decisions China makes about its workers’ health and safety policies. It’s also susceptible to the changes China makes to its labor laws and economic growth.

Finally, the explanation of their wicked problem varies greatly depending on individual perspectives (9th characteristic). In a large company such as Walmart, there are bound to be many stakeholders who differ in their perspectives and priorities. Stakeholders include everyone from employees, trade unions, shareholders, investors, suppliers and partners, to even the government. Walmart’s wicked problems are tangled and complex due to the global and large-scale nature of its business.

An Opportunity for Walmart to Use Systems Thinking with Agile Methodology to Tackle Their Wicked Problem

Walmart’s stocks tumbled 30 percent between 2015 and 2016 as they closed 269 stores. This is an example of an opportunity for a company to benefit from both systems thinking and agile methodology. They could have broken down their wicked problem of growth into digestible nodes and links so ideas could be more easily shared between stakeholders and team members. Those involved were likely to have capitalized on this opportunity to conceptualize the problem in such a tangible manner, and they would have iterated more quickly based on a variety of concrete feedback to generate a stock price-saving solution.

The Take Away

As designers, we have the responsibility to generate the best solution possible even when the wicked problem itself is indeterminate and the best solution does not yet exist. A combination of systems thinking and agile methodology can help us tackle these wicked problems. It encourages us to utilize these practices and share them with others so that we can, together, get to the next iteration of the design process.

When you start to tackle wicked problems, you can start to improve the world and the lives of the people who live in it. As a reminder, the five steps to do this are:

  1. Break down information into nodes and links.
  2. Visualize the information.
  3. Collaborate and include stakeholders in the process.
  4. Release solutions quickly and gather continuous feedback.
  5. Carry out multiple iterations.

References & Where To Learn More

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Buchanan, Richard. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), 5-21.

Ana de Almeida Kumlien & Paul Coughlan, Wicked problems and how to solve them, 2018:

http://theconversation.com/wicked-problems-and-how...

John C. Camillus, Strategy as a Wicked Problem, 2006:

https://hbr.org/2008/05/strategy-as-a-wicked-problem

Amy C. Edmundson, Wicked-Problem Solvers, 2016:

https://hbr.org/2016/06/wicked-problem-solvers

John Kolko, Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, 2012:

https://ssir.org/articles/entry/wicked_problems_pr...

Stony Brook University, What’s a Wicked Problem?:

https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/wicked-problem/...

Tom Wujec,TEDGlobal, Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast, 2013:

https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_got_a_wicked_problem_first_tell_me_how_you_make_toast

Hero Image: Copyright holder: Diana Parkhouse. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.

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