in Business Design

The Ten Distinguishing Properties of Wicked Problems

You may have heard of Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems (problems that are messy, circular, and aggressive). I was interested to see their original paper (pdf) includes ten distinguishing properties “that planners had better be alert to” because “policy problems cannot be definitively described.

  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 good-or-bad
  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 planner has no right to be wrong

It makes me wonder if any politicians have tried to campaign on a process for solving wicked problems instead of prescriptive solutions.

  1. That paper is a wonderful period piece. The ten distinguishing properties don’t really capture its vertiginous flavor, the sense of old certainties having been revealed to be paper-thin.

    There are hints of the same thinking here — having to understand the solution to understand the problem — that fed the “agile” school of software design (though, again, Fred Brookes was making similar suggestions long ago: in The Mythical Man-Month, he discusses the advantages of growing a system, rather than building it).

    There are also hints of suspicion about managing really large projects from the top down, though I don’t think they quite spell this out.

    It’s mostly about political consensus, I think. If you have enough shared political understanding to agree that auto theft should stay illegal (really!), this closes down some of the explosion of potential “solutions” in point 6. Point 5 can be eased if people trust the planners enough to put up with an experimental freeway junction or school curriculum in their backyard. Point 9, also, arises from wildly out-of-kilter political opinions. I’m reminded of the British Labour Government’s way-back slogan about being “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. This was an attempt to transcend an otherwise polarised argument between those who saw crime as a symptom of social breakdown, and those who saw it as individual misbehavior that should be punished. The slogan said, simply, fine: we’ll do both. (Whether they DID, in fact, do both, is quite another matter).

  2. Tim, thanks for that expansion and example. The paper is often reduced to simply “the one that coined the term wicked problem” and no more, but I think it has more to offer.

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