Program designers and evaluators have become keenly interested in wicked problems. More precisely, we are witnessing a second wave of interest—one that holds new promise for the design of social, educational, environmental, and cultural programs.
The concept of wicked problems was first introduced in the late 1960s by Horst Rittel, then at UC Berkeley. It became a popular subject for authors in many disciplines, and writing on the subject grew through the 1970s and into the early 1980s (the first wave). At that point, writing on the subject slowed until the late 1990s when the popularity of the subject again grew (the second wave).
Here are the results of a Google ngram analysis that illustrates the two waves of interest (click the image to enlarge).
Rittel contrasted wicked problems with tame problems. Various authors, including Rittel, have described the tame-wicked dichotomy in different ways. Most are based on the 10 characteristics of wicked problems that Rittel introduced in the early 1970s. Briefly…
Tame problems can be solved in isolation by an expert—the problems are relatively easy to define, the range of possible solutions can be fully enumerated in advance, stakeholders hold shared values related to the problems and possible solutions, and techniques exist to solve the problems as well as measure the success of implemented solutions.
Wicked problems are better addressed collectively by diverse groups—the problems are difficult to define, few if any possible solutions are known in advance, stakeholders disagree about underlying values, and we can neither solve the problems (in the sense that they can be eliminated) nor measure the success of implemented solutions.
In much of the writing that emerged during the first wave of interest, the tame-wicked dichotomy was the central theme. It was argued that most problems of interest to policymakers are wicked, which limited the utility of the rational, quantitative, stepwise thinking that dominated policy planning, operations research, and management science at the time. A new sort of thinking was needed.
In the writing that has emerged in the second wave, that new sort of thinking has been given many names—systems thinking, design thinking, complexity thinking, and developmental thinking, to name a few. Each, supposedly, can tame what would otherwise be wicked.
The arguments for “better ways of thinking” are weakened by the assumption that wicked and tame represent a dichotomy. If most social problems met all 10 of Rittel’s criteria, we would be doomed. We aren’t.
Social problems are more or less wicked, each in its own way. Understanding how a problem is wicked, I believe, is what will enable us to think more effectively about social problems and to tame them more completely.
Consider two superficially similar examples that are wicked in different ways.
Contagious disease: We understand the biological mechanisms that would allow us to put an end to many contagious diseases. In this sense, these diseases are tame problems. However, we have not been able to eradicate all contagious diseases that we understand well. The reason, in part, is that many people hold values that conflict with solutions that are, on a biological level, known to be effective. For example, popular fear of vaccines may undermine the effectiveness of mass vaccination, or the behavioral changes needed to reduce infection rates may clash with local cultures. In cases such as this, contagious diseases pose wicked problems because of conflicting values. The design of programs to eradicate these diseases would need to take this source of wickedness into account, perhaps by including strong stakeholder engagement efforts or public education campaigns.
Cancer: We do not fully understand the biological mechanisms that would allow us to prevent and cure many forms of cancer. At the same time, the behaviors that might reduce the risk of these cancers (such as healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and avoiding exposure to certain chemicals) conflict with values that many people hold (such as the importance of personal freedom, desire for comfort and convenience, and the need to earn a living in certain industrial settings). In these cases, cancer poses wicked problems for two reasons—our lack of understanding and conflicting values. This may or may not make it “more” wicked than eradicating well-understood contagious diseases; that is difficult to assess. But it certainly makes it wicked in a different way, and the design of programs to end cancer would need to take that difference into account and address both sources of wickedness.
The two examples above are wicked problems, but they are wicked for different reasons. Those reasons have important implications for program designers. My interest over the next few months is to flesh out a more comprehensive taxonomy of wickedness and to unpack its design implications. Stay tuned.