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Wicked Problems

Although I have used the term "wicked problems" in my writing, I only recently read Rittel & Webber's (1973) original description of this concept along with an editorial by Churchman (1967) commenting on his hearing Rittel talk about this construct.

I have little to add to the original formulation and encourage others to access and read both papers.

Rittel, H.W. & Webber, W.M. (1973). Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Churchman, C. W. (1967) Wicked Problems. Management Science, 14(4), B141-B142,

Rittel and Webber list 10 attributes of wicked problem, that I will list here, but encourage readers to go to the original source for further explication.

  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 numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's solution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

From the Churchman article:

... the term "wicked problem" refers to that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing. The adjective "wicked" is supposed to describe the mischievous and even evil quality of these problems, where proposed "solutions" often turn out to be worse than the symptoms.

p. B141

Churchman raises some ethical issues in the context of OR associated with approaching wicked problems piecemeal, that I think applies far more broadly than to just OR:

A better way of describing the OR solution might be to say that it tames the growl of the wicked problem: the wicked problem no longer shows its teeth before it bites.

Such a remark naturally hints at deception: the taming of the growl may deceive the innocent into believing that the wicked problem is completely tamed. Deception, in turn, suggests morality: the morality of deceiving people into thinking something is so when it is not. Deception becomes an especially strong moral issue when one deceives people into thinking that something is safe when it is highly dangerous.

The moral principle is this: whoever attempts to tame a part of a wicked problem, but not the whole, is morally wrong.

p. B141 - B142

A consequence of an increasingly networked world is that our problems are getting increasingly more wicked. These two papers should be required reading for anyone who is involved in management or design.

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