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Wicked vs Tame Problems [Future
Posted on September 10, 2014 @ 08:44:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Lately I've been encountering the term Wicked Problems more often (most recent being a lecture on Excess Nitrogen). "Wicked" problems are contrasted with "Tame" problems that we can solve with engineering-type approaches. The reason the distinction may be important is because we might be easily mislead to believe that a "wicked problem" can be solved with a relatively simple engineering type solution. For example, that we can solve climate change if each of us plants 10 trees, or if we tax carbon, or if we radically improve the efficiency of transportation, buildings, and appliances. If we believe this it might be because we don't distinguish between problems that are "wicked" versus those that are "tame".

One way in which wicked problems differ from tame problems is that wicked problems have no final solution; instead, we can do things that improve, mitigate, or worsen the situation but never ultimately solve the problem. We will not solve the problem of healthcare, for example, once and for all with some clever solution devised by a group of engineers working at an advanced research lab. That is not to say we can't improve or mitigate issues associated with healthcare, but if someone is supposedly offering "the solution" then that is extremely unlikely.

One reason it is extremely unlikely is because "wicked problems" are characterized by the fact that they are difficult to define/formulate and part of that difficulty arises because there are many different stakeholders involved who have different views on what the problem is. The problem of healthcare, for example, is viewed differently by the public, by nurses, by doctors, by administrators, by government, by insurance companies and so on. These "stakeholders" have legitimate concerns that they all feel need to be addressed by the healthcare system so defining what the problem even is in the first place is very challenging. Again, we can come together to improve or mitigate problems of healthcare but we shouldn't expect to solve "the problem of healthcare" with one masterstroke.

To make some progress on wicked problems requires that we first recognize the problem as being of the "wicked" type because this will setup the proper set of expectations on what can be done and on how the problem solving process should proceed. To address a "wicked" problem you can't just use engineering type approaches, you have to use approaches that are more attuned to addressing these types of problems. These approaches, however, are not fully worked out and that is why the whole idea of "wicked problems" is becoming more of a topic of exploration and research in universities, the military, governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations.

What can be said so far is that the discipline that spawned the concept of wicked problems, namely systems thinking, is very relevant because it has tools and ideas that it has evolved to help deal with complex systems problems. Engineering type problem solving is also important because design is critical and engineers of various sorts are tasked with designing solutions for complex problems. There is also the need for people who can coordinate the different stakeholders, make sure their voices are all heard, create an atmosphere of mutual respect and consensus building on approaches that might help improve the situation or mitigate problems but not ultimately solve the overall problem. Internet-related technologies to help do this are an active area of research and development right now and may help change our coping strategies from being more authoritarian to collaborative in nature.

It has been claimed that we are entering into an age where the number of wicked problems we have to deal with are increasing significantly for a variety of reasons. It has also been claimed that we do not just have an increasing number of "wicked" problems to deal with but also an increasing number of "super wicked" problems that are global in scope. In the face of these problems we might feel like all is lost and we need to start prepping for the doomsday scenario. Perhaps, but another response is to recognize that we can't solve these problems with the enginering type approaches, to be aware that others recognize this as well and are starting to find new ways to coordinate and think about these wicked problems, to recognize that while we will likely not solve these problems now or ever (i.e., there is no "stopping rule" as they say), that there are "good" and "bad" things we can be doing that can improve or worsen these wicked problems.

So my take home message here is to become attuned to the systems thinking distinction between wicked problems and tame problems and not to think that all problems are of the tame type. There is growing recognition that most of our major societal problems are of the wicked type and that we are using the wrong approaches and interventions to address them. Trying to figure out what the best approaches and interventions are for wicked problems is where we are at now. Those engaged in Social Entrepreneurship are for the most part addressing wicked problems so should be aware of the distinction and some of the newer approaches that are being developed and innovated to address wicked problems.

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