"Wicked Problems and Social Complexity" Jeff Conklin, Ph.D.

This paper is the first chapter of a forthcoming book.  It's a 25-page paper, so this note will be short.  But the ideas are powerful.  (Note:  the link to this paper seems to have failed, but  you can find it listed with others here and a discussion of dialog mapping as an approach to wicked problems here.  Interestingly enough due to the nature of this site, that discussion uses a school board decision on cutting the budget as an example!)

The continuum is between "wicked" and "tame" problems.  These are not categories; problems possess degrees of "wickedness."  A problem's wickedness is determined by:

1.  The extent to which understanding the problem comes from developing solutions. 

2.  The effort will not be "completed", it will simply end when some resource runs out ("satisficing").  

3.  The solution will not be right or wrong, but better or worse, good enough or not.

4.  The problem is unique or novel, despite superficial similarities to other problems.

5.  Every solution is a "one-shot" operation.

6.  There is no defined set of alternative solutions.

Social Complexity

The challenge of coping with wicked problems is increased by social complexity in the environment of the problem.  The larger the number of folks involved in designing a solution, the more diverse their intellectual and social backgrounds, the more likely they are to see "the problem" in divergent ways (think of the blind man and the elephant) and to weight the tradeoffs of possible solution elements differently.

Coping with Wicked Problems in a Socially Complex Environment

First, acknowledge the wickedness of the problem.  Resist the urge to "tame" it by defining away some aspect of wickedness.  

Second, recognize that designing a solution will be a social process, and seek social coherence.  Individual brilliance and technical or managerial wizardry cannot replace social coherence -- a shared understanding of the problem and commitment to the solutions.