Wicked Problems

There is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: you can't get a cab from 4 to 5 pm. The reason for this is not a mystery: at a moment of peak demand, taxi drivers tend to change shifts. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 pm. Now this is a problem for the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it's easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.

Among some social scientists, there is this term of art: wicked problems. We would be vastly better off if we understood what wicked problems are, and learned to distinguish between them and regular (or "tame") problems.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no "right" way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it's framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won't help you with the others. No one has "the right to be wrong," meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money. It's not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are "good" at wicked problems.)

Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change. What could be more inter-connected than it? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem--our entire way of life, perhaps — and he or she would not be wrong. We've certainly never solved anything like it before. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.

When General Motors was about go bankrupt and throw tends of thousands of people out of work that was a big, honking problem, which rightly landed on the president's desk, but it was not a wicked one. Barack Obama's advisors could present him with a limited range of options; if he decided to take the political risk and save General Motors from collapse he could be reasonably certain that the recommended actions would work. If they didn't, he could try more drastic measures.

But health care reform wasn't like that at all. In the United States, rising health care costs are a classic case of a wicked problem. No "right" way to view it. Every solution comes with its own contestable frame. Multiple stakeholders who don't define the problem the same way. If the uninsured go down but costs go up, is that progress? We don't even know.


Still, we would be better off if we knew when we were dealing with a wicked problem, as opposed to the regular kind. If we could designate some problems as wicked we might realize that "normal" approaches to problem-solving don't work. We can't define the problem, evaluate possible solutions, pick the best one, hire the experts and implement. No matter how much we may want to follow a routine like that, it won't succeed. Institutions may require it, habit may favor it, the boss may order it, but wicked problems don't care.

Presidential debates that divided wicked from tame problems would be very different debates. Better, I think. Journalists who covered wicked problems differently than they covered normal problems would be smarter journalists. Institutions that knew when how to distinguish wicked problems from the other kind would eventually learn the limits of command and control.

Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas because they know they are going to have to alter them. They know there's no right place to start so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they're more likely to understand the problem after its "solved" than before. They don't expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they've found something that's good enough. They're never convinced that they know enough to solve the problem, so they are constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders.

Know any people like that? Maybe we can get them interested in health care...