In the early 1970′s, Berkeley professors Horst Riddle and Melvin Webber divided the world of problems into two categories: Tame and Wicked. It was then, as it is now, an important distinction, one that helps explain why individuals, as well as organizations and societies, can never seem to find solutions to some of their most important problems.
For almost four decades almost no one noticed.
Even today, 43 years later, the vast majority of people who talk about solving problems (especially politicians and business executives) are distinguished by their lack of understanding of the nature of the problems that they promise to “solve”.
During this present decade, however, things have been rapidly changing. All over the world, governments, politicians, think tanks, businesses, and experts in strategy and policy have discovered that naming problems as “wicked” is a useful approach. Here are six examples:
Hillary Clinton’s Wicked Problems
In 2014, Hillary Clinton published Hard Choices, a history of her years as Secretary of State. Chapter 19 is titled “Syria: A Wicked Problem.” Here is how she explains her choice of “wicked” in the title of the chapter: ”I started referring to Syria as a “wicked problem,” a term used by planning experts to describe particularly complex challenges that confound standard solutions and approaches. Wicked problems rarely have right answers; in fact, part of what makes them wicked is that every option appears worse than the next.”
As she analyzes the options that were open to the United States, it is obvious that Clinton understands the perverse nature of wicked problems: “Do nothing and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region. Intervene militarily and risk opening Pandora’s Box and walking into another quagmire like Iraq. Send aid to the rebels and watch it end up the hands of the extremists. Continue with diplomacy and run headfirst into a Russian veto. None of these approaches offered much hope of success but we had to keep at it.” Though she doesn’t make it explicit, Clinton is struggling with one of the most important characteristics of wicked problems: Since there are no right answers or correct solutions, what is left for decision makers is to find from among the “bad” choices, the “best” one available.
She ends the chapter with these words: ”But wicked problems can’t paralyze us. We need to keep urgently seeking solutions however hard they are to find.”
Daniel Yankelovich’s Proposal
Daniel Yankelovich, in his 2015 autobiography, Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life, uses the concept of wicked problems as a framework to identify and discuss the many issues and problems that we face as a nation.
For over five decades one of the most astute and influential observers of the American scene, Yankelovich begins with these words:
“For almost forty years our economy has bred stagnant wages, long-term unemployment, huge disparities of wealth, and fewer escalators of social mobility.
This is without a doubt a ‘Wicked Problem.’”
Not only are we facing this almost overwhelming “Wicked Problem,” he insists, but things are much worse than they seem: “The thesis of this book is that with all the wicked problems the nation faces [and he names dozens], it will be difficult to get back on track without a more thoughtful, more fully engaged public, and without a more public-minded philosophy than now prevails. Today’s public feels powerless, mistrustful, inattentive, and disengaged. This makes our wicked problems harder to resolve.”
Unless there are major changes in American society, he believes, there is little that we can do.
He offers a plan for making major changes: In the coming decades he suggests that
- We will need to upgrade the public’s role in our democracy. Americans must become as effective as citizens as they are as consumers.
- We will need to restore greater fairness to our system of capitalism, so that it is once again democracy-friendly.
- We need to rebuild the moral authority of our culture and provide individuals with better tools for making life’s existential decisions.
These are “huge tasks,” he acknowledges. ”But they can be accomplished if we are brave enough and smart enough.”
Near the end of the book, Yankelovich offers his list of the thirteen “Great Tasks and Wicked Problems that Confront Our Society.”
Here are several of these wicked problems:
- Curbing the extreme individualism of our culture and elevating the importance of caring for the larger community;
- Reviving our tradition of compromise and pragmatic problem solving;
- Upgrading our democracy by strengthening its “by the people” dimension;
- Narrowing the social class gap between elites and the general public;
- Strengthening our social ethos and reviving a strong sense of right versus wrong, as distinct from legal versus illegal;
- Encouraging a critical mass of Americans to develop a philosophy of life that focuses on the importance of restoring civic virtue to society.
Wicked problems all!
Rachel Pritzker’s Attack on Wicked Problems
Rachel Pritzker, member of the fourth generation of one of America’s richest and most powerful families, and sister to Penny Pritzker, currently serving as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, is on the hunt for societie’s most difficult problems. In 2004 she founded the Pritzker Innovation Fund and assigned to it this challenge: ” [t0] support.. the development and advancement of paradigm-shifting ideas to address the world’s most wicked problems.”
The goal of the Fund, as expressed on its website, is to “offer…workable solutions to a range of wicked 21st Century problems, with a specific focus on energy, innovation, energy access and conservation.”
How do they intend to generate “workable solutions” to our most important wicked problems? Their approach is admirable. Rather than rush into programs to support or advocate for one policy position over another, “our approach…unlike other funders… is less focused upon advocacy and more focused on idea generation…” Why ideas? ”We believe that is it important to gain greater clarity before knowing what to advocate for. While advocacy inherently limits policy options by promoting specific ideas, idea generation can clarify and even expand available choices.”
Their plan to encourage the generation of new and better ideas is straightforward: “We provide financial support and active encouragement to some of the world’s smartest thinkers and organizations to empower them to generate and promote new ideas that address wicked problems.”
Reading between the lines on the website of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, one may conclude that not only does the Pritzker family want to generate new approaches to wicked problems, they also want to shape the direction of philanthropy as a whole . ”Wicked problems are challenges so complex,” they write, “they defy easy understanding. There is wide disagreement about the exact nature of the problems, let alone the solutions to them. Many of the big issues philanthropy aims to address today …are classic wicked problems.” Perhaps they are suggesting that what foundations ought to be doing in the 21st Century is finding ways to address societie’s wicked problems.
John Kao’s “Indispensable Nation”
In the opening pages of Innovation Nation, published in 2007, former Harvard professor John Kao describes a bleak future for the world community and especially for the United States. We are facing a series of wicked problems, he believes, and offers a list: Climate change, environmental degradation, communicable diseases, education, water quality, poverty, population migration, and energy sufficiency.
In order to learn more about plans and programs for dealing with wicked problems, he interviews dozens of leaders in politics, business and academia, and concludes that they have a “dangerously limited understanding” of what wicked problems are, why they are important, and what could be done with them. He ends up in despair.
And then he has an epiphany: What if we “flipped them on their heads,” and embraced wicked problems as the “keys for making the most consequential breakthroughs of the 21st Century?” What is needed, he decides, is innovation. “Innovation applied to a wicked problem,” he writes,” can realize an enormous amount of social and economic value by setting new commercial standards, creating new businesses, and generating new sources of value.”
But the traditional model of innovation, driven primarily by individuals or corporations, would not be powerful enough to make headway with wicked problems. What is needed is a new operating model of innovation itself - “Large Scale Innovation” – in which societies themselves would become the engines of innovation.
Kao argues that only the United States has the resources and the talent to lead out. ”America [must] accept the mantle of accelerating for global innovation by steering the world toward addressing the formidable range of wicked problems that we face.” Kao not only sees benefits for the world in such an initiative, but insists that unless America takes the lead, its own position in the world is in jeopardy. The last century may have been the “American Century,” but, Kao believes, unless there is a change in direction, the 21st Century will belong to other nations. On the other hand, if the United States chooses to rise to the occasion and takes the lead in addressing global wicked problems, then it is within its power to once again earn the status of “indispensable nation.”
Jonathan Heidt’s “Most Useful Concept”
Jonathan Heidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the Sterns School of Business at New York University, is one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the and the world. In 2012 he was named as one of the “Top Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy Magazine, and in 2013, one of the ”Top World Thinkers” by Prospect Magazine. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, published in 2012, has been a consistent bestseller in the New York Times.
In an introduction to a lecture given at the Zurich Minds Festival in November of 2014, Heidt says “This talk explains the most useful concept I have encountered in years – the concept of “wicked problems”…”
His candidates for wicked problems are “poverty, education, or racial equality,” and they are “so different from tame problems (like curing cholera) which can be very challenging technically, but…just sit there and let the experts converge upon solutions.” His hope for his lecture in Zurich was to help people think more clearly about economic debates “which are usually…wicked problems with moral implications.”
Time Magazine’s Superwicked Problem
In the edition of August 17, 2015, Time Magazine joined the expanding group of scholars, authors, and leaders in paying respects to the existence and importance of wicked problems. Here is how Time defined a wicked problem: …”one so complex, with so many different causes and stakeholders, that it is all but impossible to solve it completely. Poverty is a wicked problem; so is terrorism.”
Yet its reason for writing about wicked problems was not to discuss poverty or terrorism. The editors’ use “wicked” to identify what they see as the planet’s most important challenge (and hence, in one sense, the most important one for all of us): climate change! It is so important, and so “wicked” that they labeled it as “A Superwicked Problem.” Here is how they present their case:
“Climate change is caused by virtually every energy-consuming act in the modern world, touches every person on the planet, has the potential to irrevocably alter the environment on which every living thing depends and extends from the present into the distant future. And nearly half the country denies that it’s a problem at all. Hence the super.”
Their conclusion to the article is gloomy. No matter what efforts are made to deal with climate change, it may be “too little too late!”
A Good Beginning
Over fifteen years ago, I signed on for a service from Google – Google Alert. Here’s how it works: Enter a term into the search engine of Google Alert and each day Google will survey the entire web, find any reference to the term (or terms) you are interested in, and send a notice of where to find it. For all of these 15 years, my term of interest has been “wicked problems.” For the first 8 or 9 years a notice that someone had posted a comment about wicked problems on the web was rare. I would go weeks and sometimes months without a single notice. In the past few years, however, it is rare that I do not receive a notice at least once a day that someone somewhere is thinking or discussing or writing about wicked problems. Conferences are being organized. Academic papers are being published. Books are being written. Governments are creating agencies to take them in charge. Clearly, as Bob Dylan once wrote, “The times they are a’changin’.”
In this essay I have identified and discussed the actions of people – several of whom are at the forefront of politics and social action – who are talking about problems being “wicked,” and in several cases, expressing a strong commitment to taking actions against them in order to make things better.
It is a good beginning. But it is only a beginning. As we – as individuals, as members of families, as partners in important relationships, as leaders in organizations and in governments – become more aware of the existence of wicked problems, more able to converse with others about them, and, more importantly, more skillful in addressing them, our individual and collective capabilities for successful work with wicked problems will increase. Knowing more about wicked problems and then converting that knowledge into constructive action can make a huge difference. But we are only at the beginning of what is clearly a long road into the future. There is much more to do.