I was searching the web on "Software Project Failures", trying to understand (!!) why projects fail in spite of having the best people, processes and intention in place. I came across this categorization of Wicked and Tame Problems in a paper titled "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning*". What follows below is the notes taken from reading that paper.
The authors propose that the kind of problems in the public domain , for e.g. public transportation, education, public health and policy decisions are inherently different from the problems that scientists deal with. The problems in natural sciences are definable and may have a solution that can be found with the effort varying based on complexity of the problem.
For the problems in the public domain, what is to be solved is not clearly defined and whether a solution is reached or not is difficult to ascertain. Problems with such characteristics are called Wicked Problems.
The authors of the paper have provided at least ten distinguishing properties of planning type problems that are given below.
#1 There is no perfect definition of a wicked problem: While for a Tame Problem, like solving an equation or a Chess puzzle, an exhaustive statement containing all the information needed for a person to solve the problem can be provided, it is not possible with wicked problems. Wicked Problems depend upon a person's idea for solving it. For e.g. a statement like 'we need to solve the traffic problem in a city' can be interpreted as need for more flyovers or need for a better public transport system or the need to de-congest the city by developing a nearby location. In each of the options proposed, the solution actually depends on the option chosen. So for wicked problems, the formulation of a problem is the problem!
#2 Wicked problems have no stopping rule: In case of solving a mathematical equation or a chess puzzle, the problem solver knows when he has done his job. This is not possible with wicked problems. Since the problem varies on how it is defined ( refer #1) a planner can always do better. Some additional investment of time and money may mean a better solution. Usually the planner working on the wicked problem terminates work because he has run out of time or money or both.
#3 Solutions to a wicked problems are not true or false, but are good or bad: When solving an math equation or a chess puzzle, we can objectively decide whether the proposed solution is right or wrong. The proposed solution can also be checked by an independent authority. For wicked problems, there are no true or false answers. People's judgment of a wicked problem varies with their personal interests, their values and ideology. The assessment of a proposed solution is expressed as good or bad or better or worse or satisfying or good enough.
#4 There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem: With wicked problems, any solution, after implementation, will generate waves of consequences over an extended - virtually unbounded - period of time. For e.g. the consequence of building a fly over or setting up a train network through a city can't be completely understood till the solution is implemented and the fly over or train network seen in action. In contrast, for tame problems, the test of a solution is entirely under the control of a few who are interested in the problem
#5 Every attempt to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation": There is no opportunity to learn by trial and error: As mentioned in #1, every solution to a wicked problem is unique. And each solution has its own consequence. We can't build a fly over, see how it works and then modify it because of unsatisfactory performance or un desired consequence. This is because every decision to reverse a decision or correct it poses another set of wicked problems.
#6 Wicked Problems do not have an exhaustive set of potential solutions: Chess has a finite set of rules, accounting all possible situations that can occur. But when it comes to solving wicked problems, that is not the case. Various stake holders will have differing views of the solution. Here it depends on realistic judgment ( subjective) of the planner and the clientele that leads to the conclusion that a solution can be chosen from a list of potential solutions.
#7 Every wicked problem is essentially unique: This means that despite the similarity between two wicked problems, there can be a additional factor that is over riding. For e,g, the transport problem of city A, while it can be called similar, can't be called the same, with that of the transport problem of city B. Hence the solution that was successfully applied in city A can't be applied in city B. This in a way follows from #1.
#8 Every wicked problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem: A simple definition of problem can be "difference between an intended state and current state". The process of solving the problem starts with finding the reason for the difference. Removal of the difference can pose another problem of which the original problem was a symptom. This problem can be considered as a symptom of another higher level problem and so on. For e.g., poverty among citizens can be considered as a symptom of lack of opportunity, failure of government policy, laziness among citizens or whatever causal explanation that is supported by the ideology of the person who is defining the problem.
#8.1 The correct level of solution to a wicked problem is very critical: Too high a level, we end up taking a general problem that is difficult to solve and too low a level, can introduce un intended consequence.
#9 The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways: How the planner or the analyst's perceives the world (world view) is the strongest factor in explaining a discrepancy and hence the solution in resolving a wicked problem. And here the explanation doesn't strictly follow the 'scientific way' of problem definition. For e.g. crime in the streets, can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many weapons etc. Each of these offer a direction in attacking crime in the streets and there is no rule or procedure to determine the correct explanation.
#10 The Planner has no right to be wrong: A scientist can formulate a hypothesis that can be proven wrong and no one blames the scientist for being wrong. But for planners of wicked problems, there is no such immunity, they are expected to get the solution right in the first and only attempt.
The planner of wicked problems is also expected to consider the social context. Society is evolving into a more heterogeneous body. And this evolution leads to different expectations as to what should constitute a solution. And more importantly, (for the planner to consider), the opinions of the individual groups have the risk of turning the solution into zero sum game.
For example, some 50 years ago, setting up a thermal electric power plant would have been a very easy from the perspective of getting approval. But today, the numerous stake holders need to be considered, the impact and benefits of the solution ( setting up the power plant) explained to them, environmental impact has to be considered and so many other factors that would have been irrelevant ( 50 years ago) need to be considered.
Environmental impact itself can be a very dicey area considering the general awareness of the public and how the scope of 'environmental impact of setting up a thermal power plant' is defined. All this makes the job of a planner, who has set out to help increase power generation, more difficult.
- Though the paper talks about wicked problems from the context of social planning, any problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize, can be termed wicked.
- The term "wicked" is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.
- This paper was published in 1973. This paper introduced a new categorization of problem and helped to identify such problems.
- The paper doesn't help find a solution to the 'wicked problems'. Careful reading of the paper rules out the possibility of a generalized solution existing for a wicked problem.
- Though 40 years old, this paper still provides valuable insights into the major problems that face our society.
- This concept is also important for Software Professionals because certain class of projects can be classified as 'wicked problems'. More of this aspect in a separate post.
* Rittel, Horst and Webber Melvin. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy Sciences, 1973: 155-169.