The concept of "wicked problems
" was originally proposed by Horst Rittel
(a pioneering theorist of design and planning, and late professor at the University of California, Berkeley
) and M. Webber in a seminal treatise for social planning
, Rittel expounded on the nature of ill-defined design and planning problems which he termed "wicked" (that is, messy, circular, aggressive) to contrast against the relatively "tame" problems of mathematics
, or puzzle
Wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements; and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies. Rittel and Webber stated that while attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex problems.
Related concepts – messes and social messes
Russell L. Ackoff
wrote about complex problems as messes: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.”
Extending Ackoff, Robert Horn, a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, says that “a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.”
Classic examples of wicked problems include economic
, and political
issues (for an extreme case, consider what it would take to "solve" terrorism
, where even the term terrorism
is highly controversial and difficult to define). A problem whose solution requires large groups of individuals to change their mindsets and behaviors is likely to be a wicked problem. For examples of analyses of world-scale wicked problems, you can read about the work done by the Millennium Project
, originally under the auspices of the American Council of the United Nations University.
According to Horn, specific examples of wicked problems (or social messes) include issues such as: global climate change; healthcare in the United States and elsewhere; the AIDS epidemic, and perhaps other emerging diseases; pandemic influenza; international drug trafficking; homeland security, and nuclear energy and waste. In the United States, wicked problems at the national, state and local levels include drugs, crime, mental health, education, poverty, urban decay and issues related to the foregoing list.
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber
Rittel and Webber's (1973) formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics, perhaps best considered in the context of social policy planning. According to Ritchey (2007), the ten characteristics are:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- 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.
- 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.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- 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.
- The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
According to Conklin, the four defining characteristics of wicked problems are:
- The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution.
- Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
- Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
- The problem is never solved.
According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess / wicked problem are:
- No unique “correct” view of the problem;
- Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
- Most problems are connected to other problems;
- Data are often uncertain or missing;
- Multiple value conflicts;
- Ideological and cultural constraints;
- Political constraints;
- Economic constraints;
- Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
- Numerous possible intervention points;
- Consequences difficult to imagine;
- Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
- Great resistance to change; and,
- Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.
IBIS and successors
To deal with wicked problems better, Rittel developed the "Issues Based Information System" (IBIS), a framework that enables groups to break problems down into questions, ideas and arguments. Expanding on IBIS , computer scientist Jeff Conklin Ph.D. developed gIBIS ("graphical IBIS") while at the Microelectronics & Computing Consortium (MCC) in Austin, Texas. Corporate Memory Systems Inc., a spinoff from MCC, later turned Conklin's gIBIS prototype into a product called QuestMap.
Now Director of the CogNexus Institute, Conklin also developed Dialogue Mapping, a meeting facilitation skill usually supported by a software tool. By taking a group's conversation about a problem and structuring it as an issue-based diagram, Dialogue Mapping helps groups further understand and frame the problem appropriately, an important step in tackling wicked problems.
Al Selvin and Maarten Sierhuis, originally at NYNEX Science & Technology, subsequently integrated Dialogue Mapping with work in knowledge representation and business process re-engineering to create Conversational Modelling. Compendium, a hypermedia concept mapping tool, evolved from QuestMap and is designed to support Dialogue Mapping and Conversational Modelling. Compendium's development is coordinated at the Open University's Knowledge Media Institute, and its source code is freely available.
Another tool based on dialogue mapping is bCisive, developed by critical thinking researcher Tim van Gelder and Austhink Software. Like Compendium, bCisive uses IBIS methodology and also incorporates argument mapping theory to support Business Decision Mapping. By collecting all issues and considerations in one place in a clear visual structure, decision mapping promotes clarity of thinking and improves shared understanding, thereby helping address some defining characteristics of wicked problems (such as difficulty defining the problem; uncertainty; and stakeholders' differing frames of understanding) and helping identify assumptions and missing data.
In the last decade, other computer scientists
have pointed out that software development
shares many properties with other design
practices (particularly that people-, process
-, and technology
-problems have to be considered equally), and have incorporated Rittel's concepts into their software design
methodologies. The design and integration of complex software-defined services that use the Web (Web services
) can be construed as an evolution from previous models of software design, and therefore becomes a wicked problem also.
Visual analytics and collaborative reasoning tools
Combining visual analytics
with collaborative reasoning tools, Horn’s Mess Map diagrams and Mess Mapping processes help tasks forces, working groups, and other stakeholders document, organize, and visualize a wicked problem. A Mess Mapping process is a set of structured group methods for collecting, sharing, organizing and evaluating information regarding a wicked problem. A Mess Map diagram or mural represents a common mental model of the problem at hand that shows the important “chunks” of information and their relationships with other “chunks.” Mess Map diagrams typically show causal connections among related problems.
Horn and Dr. Robert P. Weber, a management consultant and sociologist, apply a particular form of scenario planning Weber calls Resolution Scenario Mapping, a form of the Future Mapping process created by David Mason, James Herman and others in the late 1980s and early 1990s based combining “simulated hindsight” with "highly prepared meetings."
In teams, Workshop participants evaluate alternative futures or Endstates by assuming that the future is now and for each Endstate, answering the question, how did the world become this way? The Resolution Mapping process also entails a “highly prepared meeting,” by which we mean that a significant effort goes into preparing ahead of time the materials that will be used in a workshop. In consultation with the project sponsors, the facilitators prepare the Endstates, Events, and other materials. Consequently, participants find that Endstates and Events are not only realistic, but typically address most if not all of the important issues.
The workshop materials and process itself provide opportunities for stakeholders to share and evaluate differing points of view while spending very little time in the workshop on developing alternative outcomes and brainstorming key milestones or events. (Workshop participants do get to contribute new Events and do address possible relationships among the Endstates.) To develop a Resolution Plan, workshop participants also focus on policy initiatives, action prioritization, and implementation.
- Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber; "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," pp. 155-169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135-144.]
- Rittel, Horst; "Second Generation Design Methods," Interview in Design Methods Group, 5th Anniversary Report, DMG Occasional Paper 1, 1972, pp. 5-10. Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 317-327.
- Conklin, Jeff; "Dialog Mapping: An Approach for Wicked Problems," CogNexus Institute, 2003.
- DeGrace, Peter, and L. Hulet Stahl; "Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catalog of Modern Engineering Paradigms," Prentice Hall PTR; 1st edition, 12 February 1998, ISBN 0-13-590126-X.
- Solvberg, Arne, and David Kung; "An Introduction to Information Systems Engineering," Springer-Verlag, 1993.
- Ritchey, Tom; "Wicked Problems: Structuring Social Messes with Morphological Analysis," Swedish Morphological Society, last revised 7 November 2007.
- Camillus, John C., "Strategy as a Wicked Problem," Harvard Business Review, May 2008.
- Conklin, Jeff; The IBIS Manual: A Short Course in IBIS Methodology, a Touchstone Inc. Working Paper
- Conklin, Jeff; Wicked Problems & Social Complexity, Chapter 1 of Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, Wiley, October 2006
- Conklin, Jeff, Min Basadur, and GK VanPatter; Rethinking Wicked Problems: Unpacking Paradigms, Bridging Universes, NextDesign Leadership Institute Journal, 2007
- Horn, Robert E., Knowledge Mapping for Complex Social Messes, a presentation to the "Foundations in the Knowledge Economy" conference at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, July 16, 2001
- Horn, Robert E., and Robert P. Weber; New Tools For Resolving Wicked Problems: Mess Mapping and Resolution Mapping Processes, Strategy Kinetics L.L.C., 2007
- Richardson, Adam; Wicked Problems: Today's business problems can be impossible to define, let alone solve, Fall 2006
- Richey, Tom; Wicked Problems: Structuring Social Messes with Morphological Analysis, Swedish Morphological Society, last revised 7 November 2007
- Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber; Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, pp. 155-169, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973
- Shum, Simon J. Buckingham; Albert M. Selvin, Maarten Sierhuis, Jeffrey Conklin, Charles B. Haley, Bashar Nuseibeh; Hypermedia Support for Argumentation-Based Rationale: 15 Years on from gIBIS and QOC, December 2005