Wicked and less wicked problems

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  • Published Date: 03 November 2021

Wicked problems are those that are complex, open-ended and unpredictable. They include global warming, social disadvantage and terrorism. These problems are often presented as so intractable that they defy definition and solution. A paper in Policy and Society proposes a more nuanced analysis, arguing that complex problems vary in the extent of their wickedness.

The emergence of wicked problems

The wicked problem discourse emerged in the 1970s from a critique of rational approaches to complex policy issues. The types of problems tackled by science and engineering were seen as ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ as their elements were identifiable and the solutions verifiable. By comparison, social problems are ‘ill-defined’ and resist an agreed solution. They are therefore seen as ‘wicked’

Some have found this analysis helpful in explaining the difficulties as to why so many policies in complex areas do not achieve their goals and have unforeseen effects. These difficulties include:

  • poorly defined problems
  • problems in flux or subject to contestation
  • a focus on symptoms instead of underlying causes
  • weak knowledge for effective implementation.

Shortcomings of the wicked problems framework

The concept of wicked problems has drawn attention to complexity, indefinability and intractability. The paper argues this conceptualisation also has significant shortcomings which limit its usefulness.

The shortcomings include:

  1. Totalising and seeing the problems as intractable masses of complexity that are so knotty that they defy definition and solution. This view means it is difficult to know where to start with these problems.
  2. A view that wicked problems require transformational responses. This style of analysis describes big, fast-moving problems that require big, fast-moving solutions. There is pressure to get it right, with little time to ‘slow-cook’ small interventions.
  3. Some analysis of wicked problems invokes a conception of success which is almost impossible to achieve. It suggests a binary choice between either transformative success or ongoing defeat.
  4. The discourse has not considered degrees of wickedness. Instead, each situation is seen in binary terms as either wicked or tame.

A typology of problems

The paper proposes a typology for understanding problems based on two elements of wicked situations:

  • the problem itself
  • the actors involved.

These form the basis of a matrix as seen in Figure 1.

Image of figure 1: Alternative types of complex problems

Figure 1: Alternative types of complex problems

The vertical dimension reflects the nature of the problem and its level of intractability. There are three possibilities:

  1. Both the nature of the problem and the solution may be clear to the decision-makers. This can encompass issues that seem at first sight to be complicated.
  2. The nature and causes of the problem may be known, but the solution is not.
  3. Neither the problem itself nor the possible effective solutions are known to the decision-makers.

The horizontal dimension concerns the key stakeholders who can affect the tractability of the problem. The main consideration is the propensity of those involved to address the problem. There are three alternatives:

  1. Where neither knowledge nor interests are fragmented between policy makers and the stakeholders. In this situation, it will be less difficult for policy makers to reach agreements with external parties about appropriate actions for tackling wicked problems.
  2. Where knowledge is fragmented among various parties, and therefore takes time and effort to access. However, the stakeholders are broadly in consensus about the nature of the problem and the possible solutions.
  3. Where both knowledge and interests are fractured among the various actors.

Nine possibilities are presented as a continuum in Figure 1. At the bottom left corner are tame problems. This where both the problem and the solution are clear, and stakeholders readily share knowledge and have congruent interests. At the other extreme, wicked problems are where neither the problems nor the solutions are known, and where both relevant knowledge and interests are fragmented.

In between are other possibilities from moderately tame to moderately wicked. These can be assessed by calibrating where each sits on each of the dimensions.

Deconstructing the dimensions of wicked problems

A problem is more likely to be wicked if several of the following conditions are present:

  • Structural complexity: inherent intractability of the technical (ie non-stakeholder-related) aspects of the problem.
  • Knowability: not only is there little knowledge about the issue but the nature of the problem or its solution is such that it is unknowable.
  • Knowledge fragmentation: the available knowledge is fragmented among multiple stakeholders, each holding some but not all of what is required to address the problem.
  • Knowledge-framing: Some of the knowledge receives either too much or too little attention because of the way it is framed. This distorts understanding.
  • Interest-differentiation: the various stakeholders have interests (or values) which are substantially in conflict with those of others.
  • Power-distribution: There is a dysfunctional distribution of power among stakeholders, whereby very powerful actors can overwhelm less powerful ones.

The bottom line

A key obstacle to making progress with wicked problems has been the tendency to see them as all the same when it comes their wickedness. This has led to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tackling them. The result is that any single problem situation has little chance of being addressed effectively.

Distinctions can be drawn between different forms of problems and the degree of their wickedness. This in itself will not solve problems. However, it can help identify appropriate interventions based on more knowledge of the issues and the relationships among key participants.

Want to read more?

Wicked and less wicked problems: a typology and a contingency framework – John Alford and Brian Head, Policy and Society, August 2017

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