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  • Writer's pictureLinda Paralez

Wicked Problems

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

A problem whose solution requires a significant number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem.

The term “wicked problems,” in common use in literature since the sixties, describes particular kinds of problems that occur in systems. Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste, to name a few. We see evidence of wicked system problems within communities and businesses, too. Community planning, economic incentives for business development, and land use regulations are all issues prone to wicked problems.

Many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. There are no easy solutions to wicked problems, and it is likely that we will recognize more wicked problems in our social, political, and organizational lives. These situations require us to gain ever better intellectual, emotional, and empathetic skills.

The problem is a wicked problem if:

  • The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution).

  • Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.

  • The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.

  • The problem is never solved definitively.

  • Formulation of the problem is subject to continuous reframing and renegotiation.

Wicked Problems have:

  • Unclear casualties.

  • Numerous intervention points.

  • Scarce data, dispersed and low quality.

  • Uncertainty regarding the cost and benefits of interventions.

  • Multiple stakeholders with different, often incompatible worldviews.

  • No optimal solutions.

Super wicked problems are ones where:

  • The scope is planetary and the potential downside is very large.

  • Those most responsible have the least interest to do something.

  • The longer one waits to do something about it, the more wicked it gets.

Treating Wicked Problems We can, however, address wicked problems with tools from Systems Thinking, Dialogue, and Design. Systems modeling and diagraming helps us draw rich pictures, see relationships, illustrate the dynamics of a system, and identify the boundaries present in a system. We can “see” the archetypes at work, measure the forces at play, and understand more about the nature of the relationships at work through these systems pictures.

Design thinking and its tools enable solution-oriented thinking, where the focus stays on results and possibilities. With design thinking and practices, we can explore new and innovative ideas, and apply reasoning and imagination around possible paradigms that provide options through design.

Of course, these tools do not work well in a vacuum. A culture and practice of dialogue where we learn to exercise empathy and build relationships across our differences in world views is necessary to effectively communicate. As we get better in our empathy skills, we cultivate collaborative thinking, abilities to create contingencies, and build social capital with individuals with whom we previously felt at odds.

Think you have a wicked problem? Contact Demarche Consulting Group. Let us show you how to solve it.

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