Wicked Problems Explored

Ten Traits of a Wicked Problem

Wicked problems aren’t new, but the arsenal to solve them certainly is. The term “wicked problem” seems to have reached critical mass in recent years.  There’s “buzz” around what it means, how things need to be done differently and why this classification is important.  What is perhaps less known in more recent discourse is the concept’s origin, which dates back to 1973, when Professor Horst Rittel, who taught design problem solving at U.C. Berkeley coined the term to “describe the nature of problems that are constantly changing with an innumerable number of elements and stakeholders.

Horst and his colleague Webber identified ten properties that distinguished wicked problems from difficult but ordinary problems.  While we think these ten properties are still absolutely relevant, there have certainly been advances – mainly technological ones – that have both further complicated the issue at hand and added much needed firepower to our solution arsenal.  Here we take each in term, offering some insights on what – if anything – has changed since 1973.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. While this is still true, it’s been further complicated by the way technology – namely access to it on a personal, individual level – has completely changed the way we do everything, making wicked problems even more wicked.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. When your problem is wicked, your hunt for possible answers is ongoing, as the environment is in constant flux.  These waters have only gotten more muddy.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. And they’re incredibly subjective, especially when the number of impacted parties increases.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. While this remains true, the pace at which technology allows us to evaluate impact does offer a quicker way of getting a snapshot of how a proposed wicked solution is working.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. While wicked solutions are often complex enough to require commitment to the solution, technology now allows us to simultaneously test multiple responses at once, gauge impact and pursue the best path.

6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. In short, there are loads of possible solutions.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. While this remains true, there are now methodologies like the one we use at AKCGlobal that allow you to follow a tried and tested course of action and deliver an equally wicked solution.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. We’d say this is true about any problem, really.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. This remains true and is perhaps always the place from which problem solving should start.  If the relevant parties don’t agree on what the problem is, how on earth (and beyond) can you even begin to find a solution?

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. We couldn’t agree more. Because the effect of a wicked solution can be immense, the wicked problem solvers have to be right.  We believe that goes even further, to sharing the risk of the outcome.  At AKCGlobal we set aside 10% of the cost of our services against your confirmation of their long-term value. If it doesn’t ‘stick’, you don’t pay it.

If you’ve got a wicked problem and you’re in need a “partner in crime” to share in the solution process, drop us a note.

For more information, contact us at: [email protected]

Have a wicked problem that needs solving? Get in touch for a free assessment

Have a wicked problem that needs solving? Get in touch for a free assessment


If you want a different approach; if you’ve never used consultants before; if the project’s failed a time or two already; or you need an urgent solution to a Wicked Problem, contact us.

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