November 30, 2015
I first came upon the concepts of Wicked and Tame problems in the late 1980′s. I was reading Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions by Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff, published in 1981. Their primary contribution to the literature of strategic planning was the introduction of tame and wicked problems into the language of planning. Their most important challenge to the traditional assumptions of strategic planning was that strategic problems were always wicked and not tame and so business leaders ran the risk of getting off track. What was needed was a new way to think about business problems that were not “solvable,” a language and an approach with which to move in new directions. Mason and Mitroff offered a new model for strategic planning based upon what Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber, called the the “distinguishing properties” of wicked problems which include:
- Wicked problems have no stopping rules;
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but bad, good, better, best;
- Every attempt to “solve” a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation;”
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique;
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem;
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem;
- A problem solver has no right to be wrong.
Most importantly, no matter what is done to them, said Rittle and Webber, wicked problems are never “solved.” In practical terms, this means that once one is engaged with a wicked problem and continues to care about it, he or she is never finished. At best, said Rittle and Webber, ”[wicked problems can] only be resolved – over and over again.”
It was for me a powerful insight. It changed how I thought about problems and, as I learned more about this way of thinking, how I acted upon them. From then on I began to include the concepts of wicked and tame problems in my professional work as therapist, professor, consultant, and in my personal life as husband, parent and friend. To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, when it came to problems,”I took the [road] less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
My thinking about problems resolved itself into a new and much more significant and powerful framework: Significant because now things made much more sense, and powerful because I felt more competent to work constructively on problems. Before my “aha” moment with Mason and Mitroff, I had been acting as if all problem were alike, when in fact wicked problems are as different from tame ones as watermelons are from pomegranates.
In the classroom, in the lecture hall, in discussions with parents, in seminars, in leadership training programs, and in consulting sessions with executives, I began to “speak” wicked. For almost 30 years, I have observed several different – and predictable – patterns of responses from those who participated .
Some Already “Knew!”
Many people seemed to know the difference between tame and wicked even before 1972. They had an intuitive sense that some problems could be solved and others could not. When others in classrooms and seminar rooms perceived the association between “Tame” and “Wicked” and problems, they said Yes! The concepts brought order into what had been for them a significant area of confusion It all made perfect sense they said. The reason that some problems could be solved and others could not be is that they belonged to different categories. Over time and with experience, they had already arrived at the conclusion that there were important differences between problems. What they lacked were words with which to explain the differences. Here are some examples of people who “knew” the difference but could not explain why:
- Sir Isaac Newton (1640 – 1726): “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”
- Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle, (2000): “Science can teach us and help us to resist death, but it can’t teach us to prepare for death or to die well…Science has armed us but it cannot disarm us.”
- Former Secretary of State George Shultz: There are important differences between “problems you can solve and problems you can only work at.”
- Gary Hamel, in The Future of Management (2007): ”It may turn out that many of the 21st century’s most perplexing problems are the ones we can only work at…”
- Marilyn Monroe: ”It might be kind of a relief to be finished. It’s sort of like you don’t know what kind of a yard dash you’re running but then you’re at the finish line and you sort of sigh – you’ve made it. But then you never have – you have to start all over again.”
- Jack Glidewell in Choice Points (1970): His title for the last chapter, “On the Quests: for Truth, for Justice, for Love,” begins with a clear understanding that the quests for truth, justice, and love are never finished. ”I started out to define the problems [of finding truth, justice and love], not to solve them,” he writes. ”They are perpetual problems. We come round to them again and again, each time getting a little closer or a little further away…The tension rises and then it drops, but it never goes away.”
- Business Executive: ”Of course! Solvable and unsolvable! It was always clear to me that some problems were different from others, but I had no idea that they had names! This is great! Now I can explain myself to others much better.”
- President Harry Truman, State of the Union Address, January 7, 1958: ”The Nation’s business is never finished. The basic questions we have been dealing with present themselves anew. That is the way of society. Circumstances change and current questions take on different forms, new complications, year by year. But underneath the great issues remain the same – prosperity, welfare, human rights, effective democracy, and, above all, peace.”
Many Were Surprised
When the idea of tame and wicked was presented, many people made a passable imitation of the man in the old ad from a number of years ago who slaps his forehead and says “I coulda had a V-8!” They would make a symbolic slap on their forehead and say in effect, “I coulda said wicked!”
- Business Leader in a Seminar on Wicked Problems: ”It never occurred to me that there were different kinds of problems, but now that you explain it, I can see it clearly.”
- EMBA Student: ”Wow! What powerful ideas! This changes everything. I was working on wicked problems all the time and thinking that they were tame and that we could solve them and they would go away. It was very, very frustrating when they kept coming back.”
- CEO of an International Corporation: ”This is new for us. We are going to have to learn to deal with some problems in a new way. We need to make the principles of wicked problems part of our culture.”
- Organizational Effectiveness Leader at a Fortune 500 Company: ”I have never forgotten your work and have talked about it with others. Your concept of finding and tackling wicked problems is a concept that has helped me from becoming paralyzed and overwhelmed by wicked problems.”
Some Had (and Continue to Have) No Clue
And then there are those who continue to speak about problems as if there were only one kind:
- Bill Nye, the “Science Guy:” In a November 23, 2015 interview with Time Magazine, Bill Nye is asked about his recently published book on global warming. In answer to the question, “Why is it important for you to focus on solutions?” Nye answers:
I became an engineer because I think any problem can be solved with technology. It’s not an exaggeration!
He then proceeds to contradict himself. He identifies two huge, serious, and unsolvable problems that are part of global warming, neither of which can be solved with technology: First, ”It’s the most important problem facing mankind, and it’s going to take everyone in the world to address it.” How he intends to make sure that “everyone in the world” gets involved by using technology to address it is not only unclear but patently impossible.
Second, he makes reference to what he calls a “non-trivial problem”: The people who deny global warming. What to do with them? His answer: We need to “get them out of the way. They’re trouble.” How he proposes to use technology (which according to him can solve all problems) to solve the problem of troublemakers standing in the way he neglects to say.
- Jeb Bush, presidential candidate: In November, 2015, in an attempt to jumpstart his failing efforts to gain the Republican nomination for president, the Jeb! Campaign introduced a new campaign slogan: ”Jeb Can Fix It.” Questions arise at once: Fix what? And how does he propose to go about fixing “it?” The reality faced by Jeb Bush, and politicians everywhere, is that all of the problems that they are promising “to fix” are wicked, and not “fixable.” Tame problems are almost always technical in nature, and so most of them can be “fixed.” Machines break and can be fixed, but the problems that politicians must grapple with – health care, education, pollution, energy. terrorism, poverty, homelessness, and on and on – are not broken in the same way that a computer or a washing machine is broken. Even though we have no idea what the “it” was that Jeb Bush was going to fix, what we do know is that “fixing it” is not going to happen.
David Brat, Republican Congressman from Virginia’s Seventh District: On November 11, 2015, when asked by Time Magazine, “What kind of speaker of the House to you think Paul Ryan will be?” Representative Brat responded: ”I’m looking forward to working hand in hand with him to solve the biggest issues that our country faces.”
Here we have another politician who has no clue. The biggest issues that our country faces – wicked problems all – cannot be “solved.” They can be worked on, grappled with, attacked, managed, but not solved. Long after Rep. Brat has left politics, his successors will be grappling with the same problems that he and Speaker Ryan, together with the rest of government, faced in 2015. Promising to “solve” the country’s biggest problems accomplishes only one thing: It creates expectations that cannot be met! In politics as in life, unfulfilled expectations quickly lead to cynicism and loss of credibility.
- George W. Bush, 44th President of the United States: The fourth paragraph of President Bush’s State of the Union Address delivered on January 28, 2003, is short and to the point:
This country has many challenges. We will not deny, will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations.
Among the challenges and problems that were to be solved before Bush left office and not be passed along to “other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations” were:
- Unemployment – making sure that everyone who wanted a job could find one
- Lack of high quality health care for all Americans
- Energy independence, while at the same time dramatically improving the environment
- The long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare
- The needs of the “homeless, the fatherless, and the addicted”
- The prevention of AIDS
- Peace between a “secure Israel and a democratic Palestine;”
- “Winning” the war on terror
- Nuclear weapons in North Korea
What is abundantly clear in 2015 is these problems and many others that Bush identified in 2003, were all passed on to future Congresses, presidents, and generations, and will continue to be passed on for decades to come. They are all wicked; they do not get “solved” but can only be worked on again and again.
If Bush had been familiar with the fact that almost all of the problems presidents and Congresses face are wicked and not tame, here is what he would have said:
This country has many challenges. They are all what social scientists call “wicked problems.” We will not deny that they exist, we will not ignore them, but will confront them with our very best efforts, allocating resources and talent to combat them. We know that this is why you have elected us. It would be foolish to promise to solve them, and so when we pass them on to future generations, our promise is to have made progress in understanding and managing them effectively.
Wicked or Evil?
When some people encounter the term “wicked problem” for the first time, they associate the word wicked with evil. Authors Rittle and Webber were explicit in not supporting this interpretation. ”…We are calling them ‘wicked,’ they wrote, “not because [they] are themselves ethically deplorable. We use the term ‘wicked” in a meaning akin to ‘malignant’,'vicious’, ’tricky’, or ’aggressive’.
Yet Rattle and Webber do see some “evil” in wicked problems. They identify three situations when wicked problems become “morally objectionable;”
- Treatingwicked problems as if there were tame
- “Taming” a wicked problem prematurely
- Refusing to recognize the inherent wickedness of social problems
With this clarification, it seems reasonable to observe that when people speak about problems as if they were all alike, and then propose “solve them,” their approach borders upon the “ethically deplorable.”
Some People Say “Wicked,” But Lack Understanding
As I observed in the previous chapter, the era of complete ignorance about wicked problems is rapidly coming to an end. More and more individuals, universities, governments, pundits, and media are using “wicked problem” language. Examples from the previous chapter included Hillary Clinton identifying Syria as a wicked problem she faced as Secretary of State; author Daniel Yankelovich using the concept of wicked problems to identify the present and future challenges faced by the United States; consultant John Kao suggesting that if America becomes the world leader in addressing wicked problems, she can once again become the one “indispensable nation;” author Jonathan Heidt’s assertion that “wicked problems” was the most “useful concept I have encountered in years…”
Naming wicked problems as “wicked” is a step in the right direction. Yet when it comes to moving beyond naming the problem and actually demonstrating an understanding of the nature of wicked problems in order to attack them, the scene is bleak. Here are two examples of saying “wicked” but demonstrating a lack of understanding of what that means. The first is from Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices, in which 23 out of 25 chapters name a specific problem, beginning with”Asia: The Pivot,”and ending with what may be for her the five messiest, most intractable problems of all: Chapter 21. “Climate Change: We’re All In This Together,” Chapter 22. ”Jobs and Energy: A Level Playing Field;” Chapter 23. “Haiti: Disaster and Development;” Chapter 24.”Century Statecraft: Digital Diplomacy in a Networked World;” and Chapter 25, “Human Rights: Unfinished Business.”
Clinton seem oblivious to the fact that not just one of the problem she discusses is wicked, but they all are! Each of these 23 chapters is a wicked problem! Not one is tame. The reason for this is clear: The job of the Secretary of State is to address wicked problems. The tame problems in government are delegated to the technical staff. Why call only one problem wicked when the definition fits them all? And why is the human rights chapter – 25 – the only one identified as unfinished, when they are all unfinished, and will continue to be for many decades to come? Here is a better title for the next edition of Clinton’s book: Hard Choices for Wicked Problems: The Messy, Intractable, Unfinished Work of a Secretary of State.
A second example of using the word wicked without seeming to understanding it is found in the autobiography of Daniel Yankelovich, Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life. At the end of the book, Yankelovich identifies thirteen “Great Tasks and Wicked Problems that Confront Our Society.” And he is correct. All are wicked. Here is an example: ”Curbing the extreme individualism of our culture and elevating the importance of caring for the larger community.”
Yankelovich offers a plan to “solve” these wicked problems by relying upon…what? Alas, all he has to offer are more wicked problems! Listed below are his “solutions” – wicked problems all – with which he proposes to solve his original thirteen wicked problems. Read them and weep!
- 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
The reality here is that no one has any idea how to make any of these actually happen. They are easy to say and write, but one knows where to start or what to do. Yet Yankelovich assures us that if we are “brave enough” and “smart enough” it can be done. It seems not to have occurred to him that relying upon wicked problems in order to solve other wicked problems borders on the surreal.
Vinod Khosla is an entrepreneur who made himself into a Silicon Valley billionaire. When making more money no longer interested him, he chose a new goal. According to author Vijay V. Vaithheeswaran, in Need, Speed, and Greed: How the New Rules of Innovation Can Transform Business, Propel Nations to Greatness and Tame the World’s Most Wicked Problems, Khosla decided that what he wants to do is “save the world.” His plan consists of applying his entrepreneurial skills to solving the world’s most wicked problems. He not only thinks big, he thinks biggest! ”Unless you influence the lives of at least a million people,” he insists, ” it simply doesn’t matter.” Khosla’s goal of “saving the world” consists of addressing only those problems that affect a million people or more. Otherwise, for him, it’s not worth the effort. The cynic in me cannot help but point out that there are thousands of wicked problems that affect less than one million people, all of whom are part of the world that Khosla intends to “save.” Are there more billionaires to help them?
Khosla’s standard for deciding which problems to attack is an example of a common and serious misperception. It is an example of the confusion that has arisen around the recent wicked problems conversations. Without exception, those who have recently state that the most important problems we face have a name, and that the name is wicked, seem to believe that wicked problems occur only at the societal/national/global level. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the frustration, confusion and pain that people experience in their lives originates with national or global problems. This is especially true in countries or regions in the midst of social upheaval and war since much of the stress and turmoil in people’s lives is connected to the unaddressed and unmanaged wicked problems found in personal crises, families, important relationships, and at work. The emotions that define and accompany our problems are personal! And it is at the personal level that any serious work must begin. This is not to say that the wicked problems that afflict millions of people in India,China, Africa or the Middle East are not important. Clearly they are. The issues and problem situations that individuals struggle with as parents, as spouses and partners, and as colleagues are also important. The scale is different but the problems are real. And it is at the levels of families, relationships, and work situations that constructive work can be done more easily. You or I may not be able to do much to alleviate the suffering of the millions of displaced people from Syria, but there is much we can do with the members of our own families, our spouses, our colleagues and our bosses at work.
Those who are discovering the usefulness and the power of “speaking wicked” can also expand their awareness and enlarge their capabilities by becoming aware that not only are conflicts between nations a serious – and wicked – problem, but so too are the endless arguments and conflicts that occur in a home; that not only is child abuse in the nation a wicked problem that cries out for attention, but so too is the abuse of the child who lives next door; that not only is the mistreatment of workers in third world countries a wicked problem, but so too is the abusive boss who threatens, intimidates and punishes unfairly those who work for him.
An important part of the new conversation about wicked problem is to expand the range and scope of our concerns to include an awareness that wicked problems exist at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, team and organizational levels, as well as the societal, national, and global levels. Does this make everything more complicated? Of course. No one said it was going to be simple or easy!
Is a Little Learning Dangerous?
The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of wicked problems and are including them in their language about problems is a positive step forward. But it is only one step. Saying “wicked” is one thing; understanding why problems are wicked is another. And the next step is equally important: mastering the skills needed in order to own them, to “get down into the swamp” with them, and to work constructively with others on them in order to make a difference.
In 1711, in his poem, “An Essay in Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote ”A little learning is a dangerous thing/Drink deep, or taste not from the Pierian spring.” Pope’s advice is valuable for those of us who grapple with wicked problems – and that includes us all. Is it dangerous to have only a “little learning” about wicked problem? I believe that it is. Over time, shallow and limited knowledge may create more disadvantages than advantages. When one says “wicked,” but lacks the necessary depth of understanding to move beyond that, people may conclude that since one can say “wicked,” he or she also ought to be able to “solve” wicked. And for many, this is too great a temptation to resist. Rather, what is needed is “deep drinking”: drilling down into theories, principles, and applications that are all part of wicked problems and that will help us become proficient in understanding the nature of the wicked problems we face. And then even more drinking deep: mastering the skills that will make our work with wicked problems more effective and more satisfying.