From Wicked to Tame and Vice Versa

By | June 2, 2017



May 21, 2017


In The Moon and the Ghetto, published in 1977, Richard R. Nelson begins with these words:

“‘If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we solve the problem of the ghetto?’  The question stands as a metaphor for a variety of complaints about the uneven performance of the American political economy.  In an economy with such vast resources and powerful technologies, why can’t we provide medical care at reasonable cost to all who need it, keep the streets, air, and water clean, keep down crime, educate ghetto kids, provide decent and low-cost mass transport, halt the rise in housing and services cost,  have reliable television and automobile repair services?”

“If we can solve one problem,” he asks, “why can’t we solve all of them?”

Those of us who have been reading (and writing) these essays on wicked problems have an answer for Nelson: It’s not really about the “uneven performance of the American political economy.” It’s much more about a lack of understanding of the nature of problems. Landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely is a tame problem: complex, yes, complicated, of course, difficult, extremely, but one that could be – and eventually was – solved.  The other problems Nelson mentions in the “ghetto” part of his question – medical care, clean streets, air and water, crime, education, low-cost transportation – are all wicked problems, and no matter how much money, time, or effort given over to them, they do not get solved.  Improved, perhaps, but never fully solved.  Evidently Nelson was unaware in the opening paragraph of his book that he was making comparisons between problems that are not comparable.  Sending a man to the moon is qualitatively different from providing adequate health care for all.  When the astronauts returned safety to earth, that problem was solved.  On the other hand, complete health care for everyone in society is a goal that will never be reached.

At First, Many At First Seem to Be Wicked (But Aren’t)

When we first come upon complex issues and difficult situations, they often  have the appearance of being of wicked problems:  They are “messy” and chaotic; they confuse us and make us feel overwhelmed; we are not sure where to begin or what to do; and there are many voices arguing for  different approaches. And yet, once people begin to dig into many of these  situations,  it becomes clear that they are actually tame rather than wicked problems.  Within the messiness of many situations there is often a tame problem waiting to be discovered and solved.  Nelson’s example of the United States sending a man to the moon – a complex and challenging problem that was eventually solved – is an example of a situation which at first seemed unsolvable.

“We Choose to Go to the Moon”

In 1961 Americans believed that the country was losing the space race with the Soviet Union.  Four years earlier, the Russians had successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and seemed to be on their way to more triumphs.  Convinced of the political need to respond with an even more impressive achievement, on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project…will be as impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be as difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Sixteen months later, on September 12, 1962, at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Kennedy doubled down on his proposal to send a man to the moon:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…

Among those listening to Kennedy’s inspiring words that day were the scientists and engineers at NASA who were keenly aware that no one had the slightest idea how to make it happen. They also understood that if it was going to happen, they were the ones who would do it.  A large part of the  challenge was that NASA was facing a number of “unknown unknowns: “Not only did they know that there were things that they did not know and would have to learn, but that there were also things that they did not yet know that they didn’t know and would have to discover. People walking about on the moon had been imagined for centuries but until Kennedy made his promise in 1962 that the United States would do it before the end of the decade it had never been taken seriously.

First Wicked, Then Tame

Sending men to the moon is an example of a problem that at first seems to be wicked but turns out to be tame.  At the time, no one would have known  to differentiate between “tame” or “wicked”  - the terms first appeared in 1967 – but to those who were now responsible for making it happen, it was very clear that what they had before them was a huge, complex, messy, and at the same time, very exciting problem.  If they would have known the distinction, someone probably would  have said, “Wow, this looks like a wicked problem!”

And at first it was.  Before the actual work could begin, Kennedy had to convince Congress that billions of billions of dollars should be allocated to putting people on the moon instead of cutting taxes, improving education, providing support for the elderly, addressing the problems of poverty, and so on. The first problems that had to be faced were political and not technical ones, and fit very well into the category of “wicked.”

Once these wicked aspects were addressed (though they never disappeared), attention shifted to the tame parts of the problem. Getting a man to the moon was clearly understood to be a problem accomplished through science and technology – no one lobbied for the problem to be given to the American Anthropological Association – and it was handed over to NASA,  an organization created by the government in 1959 to make use of scientific and engineering knowledge and tools to solve the problems of moving a man from the earth out into space. Thousand and thousands of experts from the STEM disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics –  were recruited to solve the hundreds of thousands of technical problem that at first could only be imagined, then identified, named, and eventually solved. (In fact, putting a man on the moon took 500,000 people from 20,000 companies and a hundred billion dollars!)

Even though the large and complex problem of getting someone to the moon turned out to be a tame one, no one should be surprised that there also were many wicked ones along the way. During the years that NASA worked on the problem, there was no shortage of social problems to be dealt with:  persistent conflict, power struggles, people refusing to work with other people, fraud, incompetent leadership, and on and on.

The challenge for NASA of figuring out how to send a man to the moon and return him was typical of many large, complicated and ambitious problems.  In the beginning, no one is sure whether it will turn out to be a tame problem that can be solved, or a wicked one that can only be worked on.  Often, the answer comes into focus only when science and technology make the advances that make solving the problem possible.

From Tame to Wicked

There are problems that when they first appear are clearly technical in nature and so should be handed over to those working in science, technology, and mathematics.  Once in a while, however, people working on these “tame” problems are surprised – and often unsettled – when the they don’t get solved. For reasons that the problem solvers are unable to articulate, or even understand, they discover that rather than moving toward finding a solution, they seem to be moving away from doing so.  It is as if the tame problem with which they began unexpectedly morphs into a wicked one. In such scenarios, what often happens when things bog down is at first those working on the problem increase their efforts – they try harder but no good effect, or they give up and walk away, an unhappy experience accompanied by frustration, anger and mutual recrimination.

Complex or Complicated?

One way to gain an understanding of the confusing and unsettling experience of seeing what at first seems to be a positive and productive problem-solving process crash and burn is to  examine the differences between “complex” and “complicated.”

 Complexity: There are basically four aspects of a situation, issue, or system that determine its level of complexity: First, complexity may simply be  intrinsic to a system or an issue.  It is baked into the cake so to speak.  Second, complex situations or systems are made up of a large number of variables.  As more variables are identified as part the system, things become more complex. Third, complexity is the result of interactions between all those variables as those interactions increase in frequency and velocity.  Fourth, complexity further increases as conflict occurs between the variables and proves to be difficult or impossible to reconcile.

There is mounting evidence that situations, issues and systems are increasingly becoming more and more complex: There are more variables and more interactions among them, that in turn leads to more conflict between and among them.  In the case of business organizations, for example, the Boston Consulting Group tracked a representative sample of companies in Europe and the United States for over 55 years – from 1955 through 2010 – and using a metric they created to measure complexity, they discovered that complexity in business had increased six-fold.  In 1955, for example, these companies committed to between four or five performance demands.  In 2010 the number had risen to between twenty-five and forty.  In 1955, the researchers found that hardly any of these demands were in conflict with each other.  In 2010, the number of demand variables that contradicted each other had risen to between 15 to 50 percent.

Here are some examples of complex situations or systems:

Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that examines the fundamental  interactions of atoms and subatomic particles of small scale and at low energy levels.  By every definition, it is extremely complex. “The truth is,” says physicist David Walton, “everyone is confused by quantum physics.”  Even Einstein said “the more success quantum mechanics has, the sillier it looks.”

The score of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps,” is so complex that when Leonard Bernstein of the New York Philharmonic first conducted it, he found the score unintelligible.  He had to call upon the musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, a friend of Stravinsky’s, for help in deciphering the rhythms.

Complex problems are not necessarily wicked ones.  In fact, as we saw in the discussion of sending men to the moon, complex problems often turn out to be tame ones, and can often be solved by the skillful application of scientific and technological knowledge and skill from the STEM disciplines.  Among the greatest achievements of the modern era are the astounding solutions to complex problems that have been discovered by scientists. engineers, and mathematicians.

Complication:   While issues, situations, systems throughout the world are becoming more complex, they are also becoming more complicated. In the Boston Consulting study, while complexity increased six-fold between 1955 and 2010, “organizational complicatedness increased by a factor of 36.”  It seems that while things are getting more complex, they also are getting complicated and at a much faster rate.

Complexity is one thing, but “complicatedness” is another matter entirely. As opposed to complexity, “complicatedness” is not intrinsic to an issue or a system. Problems becomes more complicated by the actions of the people who are working on them:  What people do and how they do it; what they don’t do and how they don’t do it.  Often with little or no insight as to what is happening, those who are working to solve a problem, often end up become the problem themselves.

As more and more complications are introduced by people into the process of trying to solve tame problems, one of two things tends to happen:  Either the originally tame problem is changed into a wicked one; or the original problem is forced aside while the problem solvers grapple with new problems – wicked ones – that they introduce into the process themselves.  Either way, as tame problems morph into wicked ones, instead of making progress on the problem with which they started, problem solvers find themselves struggling with new problems they don’t expect and often are  unprepared for.

In 1972 and 1973, when Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber introduced their two categories – tame problems, those that could be worked on and eventually solved and wicked ones, those that could never be “solved” but only worked on – it didn’t seem to have occurred to them that there would be times when, while working on tame problems, people could “screw things up” to such a degree that their expected solutions would be forced into the background as wicked ones took their place.

David Wagoner’s poem My Physics Teacher serves as an example of how people can make a mess of things:

He tried to convince us, but his billiard ball
Fell faster than his Ping-Pong ball and thumped
To the floor first, in spite of Galileo.
The rainbows from his prism skidded off-screen
Before we could tell an infra from an ultra.
His hand-cranked generator refused to spit
Sparks and settled for smoke. The dangling pith
Ignored the attractions of his amber wand,
No matter how much static he rubbed and dubbed
From the seat of his pants, and the house brick
He lowered into a tub of water weighed
(Eureka!) more that the overflow.

He believed in a World of Laws, where problems had answers,
Where tangible objects and intangible forces
Acting thereon could be lettered, numbered, and crammed
Through our rough skulls for lifetimes of homework.
But his only uncontestable demonstration
Came with our last class:  he broke his chalk
On a formula, stooped to catch it, knocked his forehead
On the eraser-gutter, staggered slewfoot, and stuck
One foot forever into the wastebasket.

Most people either have the skills to solve many problems that can be solved or can learn them.  Unfortunately, there are some people who, while working on problems that can be solved, seem to be most skillful at making things worse.  They often give the impression of the physics teacher staggering about with one foot firmly lodged in a wastebasket.

From Wicked to Tame and Back

Many complex and confusing problems which at first seem to be wicked  turn out to be tame and can be solved by the effective application of the knowledge and tools of science and technology.  On the other hand, there are problems which at the beginning appear to be tame, but over time prove to be unsolvable.  One major reason, as we’ve pointed out before, is that the problem itself is misdiagnosed to begin with.  But in many other instances, the problem is not in the problem itself, but in the people who, because of their ignorance, incompetence, or maliciousness, make things more complicated that they need to be and often end up sinking the ship. As Einstein also said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupid, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Alas, when it comes to successful work on almost all problems we will always need people at some point in the process.  To maximize our chances of success, then, our best hope is to help people get better at understanding the difference between tame and wicked, at solving tame problems and working on wicked ones, and becoming skillful at avoiding mixing one with the other.


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