“Wicked” problems: What are they, and why are they of interest to NNSI researchers?

by: Katherine Cooper

Not too long ago, I sat in on a meeting of local leaders as they wrestled with an education initiative that they were trying to implement in the community. Although the group’s goal sounded simple enough – introducing literacy programming into existing school and community projects – the conversation soon became complicated. There is a clear link between improving literacy and improving educational outcomes, but what else poses a problem to educational achievement? The conversation soon turned to a discussion of racial disparities in the community, the failure of schools and nonprofits to recognize and address trauma in student populations, impending budget cuts, and the challenges of sharing data across schools and social service providers. “This is a wicked problem,” acknowledged one of the leaders in the room, to the agreement of others. What is a wicked problem, and how do we address these in practice and research? This week, we define and discuss the “wicked problem,” including its origins in research, current wicked problems in our communities today, and how NNSI addresses these challenges in research.

 

What is a wicked problem?

In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber used the term “wicked problem” to refer to problems that are difficult to define and inherently unsolvable. They suggested the following 10 characteristics of wicked problems:

 

  • A lack of definitive formulation.
  • No stopping rule that determines when a solution has been found.
  • Good or bad solutions rather than true or false solutions.
  • Lack of immediate and ultimate tests of solutions.
  • Solutions are “one-shot” operations rather than trial and error.
  • Lack of criteria that indicate all solutions have been identified.
  • The uniqueness of every wicked problem.
  • Any wicked problem could be viewed as a symptom of another problem.
  • Any discrepancies in wicked problem can be explained in multiple ways.
  • Planners have no right to be wrong in that they are responsible for outcomes that result from the actions they take.

 

What are common wicked problems? How are wicked problems different from other problems?

In their original work, Rittel and Webber suggested that wicked problems are typically those pertaining to governmental, social, or policy planning. Examples of wicked problems that have been addressed in scholarly literature include poverty, urban renewal, school curriculum design, education, environmental and natural resources policy.

 

All of these suggest challenging social problems that involve a number of different stakeholders with different views. If you were to ask 10 people about homeless in their community, you would likely receive 10 different responses in terms of the main contributors to homeless in their area, and 10 different responses as to the best ways of reducing homelessness. Their responses are likely to be informed by their personal values and circumstances as much as influences in the community.

 

This suggests that wicked problems differ from other problems. Weber and Khademiam (2008) argue that wicked problems are unstructured, cross-cutting, and relentless. Here’s how we might think about this in terms of homelessness:

  1. Wicked problems are unstructured in that it is difficult to sort out causes and effects and little consensus in identifying problems and solutions. What causes homelessness? How do factors like affordable housing and employment impact homelessness? Would housing insecurity impact someone’s ability to secure employment? What personal circumstances might impact a person’s ability to secure housing? What community circumstances?

 

  1. Wicked problems are cross-cutting in that they have many overlapping stakeholders with different perspectives on the problem. How might the operators of a local shelter view homelessness in their community? What about local government officials? Social service nonprofits that operate local food banks or offer employment officials? Local business owners? Medical professionals? People who live in the community? Those who have lived experiences of homelessness? In what ways might these stakeholder groups agree with each other or disagree with regards to how they can reduce homelessness in their shared community?

 

  1. Wicked problems are relentless; they can’t be solved “once and for all.” Would simply building more shelters or providing access to affordable housing solve the problem? What if housing solutions were provided alongside health screenings and counseling? Can we ever really bring about an end to homelessness?

 

Why is NNSI interested in wicked problems?

At NNSI, we’re primarily interested in how wicked problems bring together different groups or sectors – nonprofits, government agencies, and business – alongside groups or individuals from the community. In our research, we pose some of the following questions:

  • What stakeholder groups come together in response to a wicked problem, such as improving educational outcomes?
  • How do these stakeholders understand the wicked problem?
  • Do some stakeholder groups have more influence in defining or framing the wicked problem?
  • If wicked problems pose challenges to a community but may be unsolvable, how – and why – do stakeholders commit to working on these problems?

 

Where can I learn more about wicked problems?

A number of researchers and scholars have written about wicked problems, including the two articles cited in this post:

 

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

Weber, E. P., & Khademian, A. M. (2008). Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network settings. Public Administration Review, 68(2), 334-349.

 

 

Additionally, the Austin Center for Design offers a book on wicked problems for social entrepreneurs that can be accessed online: https://www.wickedproblems.com/read.php

 

Harvard Business Review offers some further insights on identifying and solving wicked problems:

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

 

Networks are suggested as a resource for tackling wicked problems in this Nonprofit Quarterly reprint:

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2013/12/23/learning-transformative-networks-to-address-wicked-problems-a-golden-invitation/