Q & A

Q. Where did the terms “Tame Problems” and “Wicked Problems” come from?

A.  In 1973, two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, published a paper in the journal Policy Sciences (4: 155-169) titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” in which they argued for two categories of problems, “Tame” and “Wicked.”

Q.  What is the difference between “Tame” and “Wicked” problems?

A.   While there are quite a number of differences, the most critical one is that the process of dealing with Tame Problems is Convergent, that is problem solvers will converge toward one correct or “true” answer.  Problems in mathematics, logic, and science are mostly “Tame.” People working independently on the same problem can be expected to end up with the same answer. Working on “Wicked Problems,” however, is a Divergent process: Instead of one correct or true answer, there are many acceptable alternatives.

Examples of Wicked Problems are:

  • making marriage work;
  • raising children;
  • conducting a performance review with an employee;
  • strategy decisions in business;
  • policy decisions in government;
  • the execution of all important decisions.

The challenge for Wicked Problems is not to find the correct answer (since there isn’t one), but to find the “best” one of many,  a process that relies not upon a scientific method, but requires the good judgment and good will of human beings working together (and is itself a “Wicked Problem”).  People working independently on the same Wicked Problem will inevitably arrive at different answers.

A second important difference is that while Tame Problems can be “solved,” Wicked Problems cannot be “solved” but only grappled with. That is, no matter what is done, as long as they are important, these problems continue to exist, and so must continue to be addressed.  There is no solving,” there is no fixing.  What is possible is taming.

Q.  Are Wicked Problems evil?

A.  No.  Horst Rittle and  Robert Webber made clear that in calling some  problems “Wicked” they did not mean evil.  Rather, they said:

 we are calling them “wicked” not because  they themselves ethically deplorable. 

We use the term “wicked in a meaning akin to that of “malignant”

(in contrast to “benign”) or “vicious” (like a circle) or “tricky” (like a leprechaun)

 or aggressive (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).

Rittle and Webber did think that there were moral issues involved with Tame and Wicked Problems.  Actions became “morally objectionable,” they believed, when people:

  • treated Wicked Problems as though they were Tame;
  • tried to tame a Wicked Problem prematurely;
  • refused to recognize the inherent “wickedness” of social problems
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