And why collaboration is essential to addressing them.

What’s All This About A Wicked Problem?

By: Peter Williams, Partnership Academy

Topic: Collaboration

Type: Essay

I often hear that community collaboration or collaborative conservation involve wicked problems. Ever wonder what that really means?

In the Northeast, wicked is used as a modifier in place of “really” or “very.” You can have a wicked good beer that is truly tasty — or see a wicked bad movie that is truly awful. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The phrase “wicked problem” originated in the 1960s to describe a particular type of problem with particular characteristics. Today, an internet search will suggest a wicked problem is impossible to solve. However, that misses an important point: a wicked problem isn’t a technical problem that is tractable or solvable in a decisive sense. A wicked problem requires ongoing management. For a wicked problem, the very idea of a solution is different.

The reasoning needed to deal with a wicked problem is richer, and more robust, than that which is needed for a technical problem, where an engineer, scientist or technical expert, can define a problem to solve. They can deconstruct it into separate parts with clear objectives — sometimes even assign teams to different pieces – and then come up with a solution and move on.

However, a wicked problem isn’t so simple.

In fact, approaching a wicked problem as though it were tame and technical is a mistake that often leads to new and more challenging problems that emerge from the mismatch between the problem and the approach.

So, what are we talking about? A wicked problem, at its core, is defined by disagreements about:

  • The problem’s nature or type;
  • Goals for addressing it;
  • How to reach those goals;
  • How to tell when it’s solved.

And those disagreements build on each other, often from the very beginning when first explaining or trying to understand the problem. The wickedness of a wicked problem is not about mistakes or misunderstanding; its more about values, priorities and how different people see the world.

There are a number of distinguishing and interrelated characteristics of a wicked problem, according to the two scholars who documented their thoughts about this (Rittel and Webber 1973). We’ve mentioned several already:

  • A problem is wicked if it has no definitive formulation, so smart people define it differently;
  • A wicked problem has no stopping rule, so it’s hard to gauge success;
  • It has no best or worst solution, only ones that are subjectively good or bad;
  • It has no clear test of solutions, so decisions simultaneously produce success and failure, which also means there is little sound basis to establish statistical, scientific probabilities;
  • It is dynamic and unique in meaningful ways, so every attempted solution is also unique in meaningful ways and leads to an equally unique outcome;
  • It is a symptom of other problems and a cause of still others, all with unclear boundaries;
  • And last, it has unclear decision makers because different individuals or groups can choose to respond to the problem independently, or even in opposing ways for conflicting reasons.

These characteristics explain why we see wicked problems as tricky like a leprechaun and slippery like a wily coyote, the trickster here in the Southwest.

For me, the most important lesson about wicked problems is that community collaboration and collaborative conservation are the most appropriate ways to address them and to manage them for the long-run. Specifically, it isn’t just that we most often face wicked problems; it’s that our skills and approaches are most suitable for dealing with and managing that tricky type of problem.

People placing notes on table-top map

Spatial fire planning is an emerging vehicle for collaborative planning. Click on the image above to read more about it. Credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado State University

Treating a wicked problem like a tame or technical one ignores the wicked characteristics that a collaborative approach embraces. Collaborative approaches — when done well (see The 8 Watch Outs of Collaboration for tips on recognizing problems and getting back on track) — bring different, diverse perspectives together to produce a shared understanding and commitment.

This includes a shared sense of healthy skepticism. That shared understanding, combined with a bias toward action, can be the basis for ongoing learning — knowing that the problem will continue to evolve regardless.

Take note: collaborative conservation and community collaboration most often deal with wicked problems, which is good because their nonlinear, diverse approaches are exactly what’s needed.

Resources

Rittel, H. and M. Webber, 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning (PDF, 1.98MB). Policy Sciences.

About the Partnership Academy

The Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy (the Academy) was established in 2008 as a community of partnership-minded people working throughout, across, and with federal agencies to explore practices, build skills and learn from peers. We are a collaborative conservation team dedicated to the stewardship of the nation’s natural and cultural resources.

The Academy supports a community of practice in the emerging professional field of partnership management and community collaboration. We walk the talk of partnerships throughout our efforts. We welcome folks from federal, state and local agencies, nonprofits, associations and tribes to enrich peer learning for all participants. Our over 700 students and alumni bring experience from over 24 different organizations. To learn more about becoming a student or to view upcoming online courses, start with a visit to the Managing by Network course page.

The Academy Staff are Liz Madison, Anne Desmarais, Jane Hanson and Peter Williams, who each bring practical experience and applicable education, from teaching and instruction to leadership and management. We define the Academy’s strategic direction, develop curriculum, host training courses, conduct training needs assessments and manage Academy operations. Our services also include strategic planning support, curriculum design and development, training needs assessments, on-site and online training, professional presentations and facilitation for conferences and workshops, as well as coaching and mentoring of partnership professionals. To learn more about our strategic partners and guest instructors, visit our About Us page.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on the Partnership Academy’s blog.

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2 thoughts on “What’s All This About A Wicked Problem?”

  1. Tim Kirkpatrick says:

    Peter I like the diinction in problem types. I am afraid this one is too region specific and idiosyncractic.
    We already have a paradigm for this and another name. You have described well a ‘complex problem’ and there exists a whole set of designs and algorythms for it in ‘complexity theory set’.

    That said the 11 problem solving steps are useful and I encourage their spread through the FACnet.

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