Wicked Problems Defined
In the landmark article ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber observed that there are a set of problems that cannot be resolved with traditional analytical approaches. They labeled such problems ‘Wicked Problems’. Wicked problems, according to Horst and Webber, have ten characteristics:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
Formulating the problem and the solution are essentially the same thing. Each attempt at creating a solution changes the understanding of the problem.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
Since you cannot define the problem, it is difficult to tell when it is resolved. The problem-solving process ends when resources are depleted, stakeholders loose interest or political realities change.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false but good-or-bad.
Since there are no unambiguous criteria for deciding if the problem is resolved, getting all stakeholders to agree that a resolution is ‘good enough’ can be a challenge.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
Solutions to wicked problems generate waves of consequences, and it is impossible to know how all of the consequences will eventually play out.
- Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences.
Once the web site is published or the new customer service package goes live, you can’t take back what was on-line or revert to the former customer database.
- Wicked problems do not have a well-described set of potential solutions.
Various stakeholders will have differing views of acceptable solutions. It is a matter of judgment as to when enough potential solutions have emerged and which should be pursued.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
There are no ‘classes’ of solutions that can be applied to a specific case. “Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early what type of solution to apply.”1
- Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
A wicked problem is a set of interlocking issues and constraints which change over time, embedded in a dynamic social context.
- The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
There are many stakeholders who will have various and changing ideas about what might be a problem, what might be causing it, and how to resolve it.
- The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong.
A scientist is expected to formulate hypothesis, which may or may not be supportable by evidence. A designer doesn’t have such a luxury, they are expected to get things right.