GUEST ARTICLE: Wicked Is a Special Kind of Problem: What It Is and What to Do about It

This guest article was written by Lisa Beutler, Executive Facilitator at Stantec, and first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Water Resources Impact.

Wicked problems are confounding.

By-products of human behavior, they intersect, shape shift, and defy routine corrections. Calling a problem wicked, particularly in North America, speaks to scale. It ascribes excess. It proclaims that  something that has gone beyond reasonable or predictable limits. Most major societal problems—such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine—are wicked. These problems are overwhelming and consequential. Centuries of effort have been unsuccessful in eradicating them. In recent years, many water issues have been described as wicked problems.

The first time most people encounter the word “wicked,” explains Merriam Webster, is in a fairy tale. Wickedness is “an epidemic in children’s literature.” Wickedness implies a degree of occultism and mystery. It describes morality or the negative or extreme characteristics of an object. “Wicked” is a fitting word for both the year 2020 and many water resource issues.

“Wicked” problems (H. J. W. Rittel, 1972), or “messes” (e.g., Russell Ackoff, “The Future of Operational Research Is Past,” 1979), are complex sets of problems in which many different potential issues are intertwined or linked.  They defy normal problem solving. Wicked problems involve incomplete or contradictory knowledge, differing values, multiple assessments of the situation, and a range of stakeholders with relationships among them.

These problems plague us where we live and work and ripple out beyond our domains into the larger world.  It’s a rare water manager who hasn’t, at some point, been exasperated by one problem or another. But just because a problem is hard to solve or conflict laden doesn’t mean it is wicked. To be wicked, a problem must have an indeterminate scope and scale. The first step in addressing it is to understand what type of problem it is; a correct diagnosis facilitates selecting the proper solution.

Theories of Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel, an urban planner, described wicked problems in his paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (1973). He offered a 10-point checklist that could be used to help planners determine if they were working with something wicked. Table 1 provides Rittel’s full list along with examples or explanations of the characteristics used to define wicked problems.

Russell Ackoff, Rittel’s contemporary, focused on operations research (OR) and organizational theory.  OR is the application of scientific, and especially mathematical, methods to the study and analysis of problems involving complex systems. Because wicked problems are conglomerations of complex systems, created by humans, Ackoff’s ideas can be used to help address wicked problems.

OR theories are essentially the models that outline the underlying order, or sets of rules, for how systems operate. These models allow those studying systems to assess the probability of events and outcomes and/or take appropriate action when correction is needed.  Understanding these models can improve decision making.

Ackoff believed the prevailing theories of OR were not robust enough to account for the behavior of systems when humans were involved. He noted that OR assumed rational behavior when it may not be applicable. He began describing “messes” to prove his point. His messes were the same types of issues Rittel had described.  Wicked problems and messes, they both asserted, were
different from regular problems.

Ackoff’s messes are systems of problems where “the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess.” The behavior of a mess “depends more on how the solutions to its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.” He proclaimed, “Managers do not solve problems; they manage messes.”
And, like Rittel, he concluded, “Effective management of messes requires a particular type of planning, not problem solving.”

The path to addressing wicked problems or messes predominantly involves synthesizing rather than analyzing. This approach requires considering things as a whole rather than as component parts. It also requires understanding that these problems cannot be solved. As Ackoff explained, “The objective of such efforts should be to produce systems that can pursue ideals effectively and do so in a way that provides continuing satisfaction to the participants.”

Water planners have historically focused on forming an understanding of the way individual parts of the water system work and then altering and reattaching the parts to produce desired results. This machine-age approach was the foundation of most Western water public works projects. In this mechanistic world, there were correct answers for problems. Decision makers worked from facts. Professional standards outlined the best course of action. Actions could be tested and were repeatable.

However, the world isn’t a machine. Living systems are not so predictable. A wicked problem is like a Facebook relationship status—complicated. People don’t live within the confines of mathematical equations. Life involves trade-offs based on differing values and the way the benefits or adverse impacts of any decision accrue to its range of stakeholders.

What to Do

The first step in addressing a wicked problem is to correctly diagnose it. Complicated or complex problems alone do not constitute a wicked problem, although wicked problems are composed of complex systems of systems. Rittel’s checklist is the right starting point for the diagnosis.

Rittel believed wicked problems could be mitigated through the process of design. He prescribed the use of three tools: empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

The first, empathy, flows from forged relationships and an understanding of the values to be expressed in decision making. Water managers and their stakeholders aim for one or more desired benefits. As an example, a community may value improved health and safety, economic vitality, ecosystem integrity, equity and justice, and/or enriching experiences like recreation, inspiring viewsheds, or spiritual fulfillment. The application of water management values is contextual, and, while values are often thought to be enduring, they may evolve over time. To illustrate, the primary goal of early Western water development was to make the land “productive.”  Even today there are heated discussions about whether or not it is desirable for any water to ever reach the ocean. The definition of “productive” has changed over time, as have the values applied to water and the land.

The second tool, abductive reasoning, is sometimes referred to as “taking your best shot.” This type of reasoning exceeds the comfort level of every analyst who has spent years honing their deductive reasoning (the act of applying a general rule to a specific application) or inductive reasoning (the extrapolation of the specific to the general). Those working with wicked problems always begin with an incomplete set of observations because they can never fully know the magnitude of a problem’s interrelated and intersecting issues. Planners are required to extrapolate the likeliest possible explanation for what is occurring. Decision making is based on the imperfect information at hand.

The third tool is rapid prototyping, which allows ideas to be tested. The probable impact of any action applied to a wicked problem is estimated but uncertain. The only given is that any action will change the system in which it is being tested. As with Schrödinger’s cat, interactions with the problem will change the problem. Wicked problems must be adaptively managed. Methods to address wicked problems demand the application of interdisciplinary collaboration and perseverance. They require knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine, politics, and more. Approaches are both place based and content based. Ackoff writes, “Effective treatment of messes requires the application of not only Science with a capital ‘S,’ but also all the arts and humanities we can command.”

Wicked Problems Require a New Kind of Work

Wicked problems are not fixed with one-and-done solutions. Addressing wicked problems requires changes in the way we work. Worldwide, stakeholders demand collaborative, multidisciplinary approaches. They need to understand the assumptions being made to compensate for what they know is inadequate information. Underlying values must be brought to the surface, and trade-offs and adaptive approaches must be proposed. Collaborative, multidisciplinary approaches have already improved some water outcomes (particularly for transboundary water and groundwater), even if larger conflicts among competing values remain unresolved.

Because these wicked problems must be continuously managed, effective responses may include approaches designed to build more system resilience. Resilient systems better resist ongoing stressors and recover more quickly from inevitable adversity. Responding to wicked problems also requires increasing our capacity to manage uncertainty. Certainty is hard to find when wicked problems demand action without the benefit of complete information. There is no static state, as every intervention changes the problem being addressed.  While wicked problems may not be solvable, some wins may be possible. Successes may occur within subsets of a system. With significant collaboration and multidisciplinary approaches, temporary relief may also be experienced at larger scales. However, because humans are involved and the universe is in a constant state of change, what worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. Moving forward, practitioners may benefit from reframing their approach to wicked problems as a journey, not a destination.

Lisa Beutler, an AWRA past president and executive facilitator at Stantec, is no stranger to wicked problems.  She helps communities and organizations solve problems and make decisions. A nationally recognized conflict resolution and public policy specialist, she has worked on some of the most complex water resources issues in the United States.  Contact:

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