A wicked problem is a problem that doesn't have an agreed upon solution because there are multiple solutions that may (or may not) improve the situation, and it cannot be proven that any given solution will work best, or how well any proposed solution will work. Moreover, the optimal solution often depends on the viewpoint of the individual.

The concept was originally developed in the field of social planning in the 1960s, and more fully and formally developed in 1973 by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in their paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. At that time they defined 10 properties of wicked problems, but in 2006 Jeffrey Conklin published a pared down list that he believed could be applied to wicked problems in any field:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. The problem has no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions are not absolutely right or wrong (but are effective or less effective).
  4. Each problem is essentially unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a one shot operation, with no ability to run controlled experiments.
  6. Problems have no stand-alone alternative solutions.

For example, controlling malaria is a wicked problem because: 1. we do not know how to cure it or enforce sufficient behavioral change; 2. waiting on the stopping rule, 100% eradication, is not a feasible plan for current management; 3. there are multiple possible good solutions (bed nets, DDT, vaccination); 4. solutions used for polio or guinea worm are insufficient for malaria; 5. we are limited in our ability and willingness to run experiments on large populations of humans; 6. we do not have a simple choice of doing either A or B, we have a wide range of non-exclusive choices.

Brevity Quest 2016

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