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Wicked Problems: Structuring Social Messes With Morphological Analysis

If you work in an organisation that deals with long-term social, commercial or financial planning, then you've got wicked problems! You may not call them by this name, but you know what they are. They are those complex, ever changing societal and organisational planning problems that you haven't been able to treat with much success, because you haven't even been able to structure and define them properly. They're messy, devious, and they fight back when you try to "solve" them.

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, both urban planners at the University of Berkley, wrote an article for Policy Sciences with the astounding title "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". In this landmark article, the authors observed that there is a whole realm of social planning problems that cannot be successfully treated with traditional linear, analytical approaches. They called these wicked problems, in contrast to tame problems.

A year later, in his book "Re-designing the Future", Ackoff (1974) essentially put forward the same concept (although in less detail), which he called a "mess", and which later became a "social mess" (Horn, 2001).

Although we are wiser today, and less susceptible to the belief that complex social planning problems can be "solved" by one-shot methods and magic bullets, it is instructive to look at the original formulation of the distinction between "wicked" and "tame" problems.

First, let's look at what characterises a tame problem (Conklin, J, 2001, p.11). A tame problem

- has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement.
- has a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when the solution is reached.
- has a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.
- belongs to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar manner.
- has solutions which can be tried and abandoned.
- comes with a limited set of alternative solutions.

Wicked problems are completely different. Wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous and associated with strong moral, political and professional issues. They are also stakeholder dependent: there is little consensus about what the problem is, let alone how to resolve it.

Furthermore, wicked problems won't keep still: they are sets of complex, interacting issues evolving in a dynamic social context. Often, new forms of wicked problems emerge while you are trying to understand and solve one of them.

The most evident, and important, wicked problems are complex, long-term social and organisational planning problems.

Examples of these are:

* How should we fight the "War on Terrorism?"
* What is a good national immigration policy
* How should scientific and technological development be governed?
* How should we deal with crime and violence in our schools?
* How should our organisation develop in the face of an increasingly uncertain future?

"The classical systems approach ... is based on the assumption that a planning project can be organized into distinct phases: 'understand the problems', 'gather information,' 'synthesize information and wait for the creative leap,' 'work out solutions' and the like. For wicked problems, however, this type of scheme does not work. One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve." (Rittel & Webber, 1974, p. 161)

Rittel and Webber characterise wicked problems by the following 10 criteria. (When partaking of these criteria, the reader should attempt to put her/himself in the context of the obvious frustration expressed by these urban planners and policy makers.)

1. There is no definite formulation of a wicked problem.

"The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one's idea for solving it. This is to say: in order to describe a wicked problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory for all the conceivable solutions ahead of time."

[Note: this is explicitly what computer-aided General Morphological Analysis (GMA) was designed to do. GMA results in an inference model which strives to represent the total problem space, as many of the potential solutions to the given problem complex as possible (Ritchey, 1998).]

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rules.

In solving a tame problem, "... the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are criteria that tell when the solution, or a solution, has been found". With wicked problems you never come to a "final", "complete" or "fully correct" solution - since you have no objective criteria for such. The problem is continually evolving and mutating. You stop when you run out of resources, when a result is subjectively deemed "good enough" or when we feel "we've done what we can..."

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.

The criteria for judging the validity of a "solution" to a wicked problem are strongly stakeholder dependent. However, the judgments of different stakeholders ..."are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections." Different stakeholders see different solutions as simply better or worse.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

"... any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended - virtually an unbounded - period of time. Moreover, the next day's consequences of the solution may yield utterly undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages or the advantages accomplished hitherto."

Submitted by:

Tom Ritchey

Dr. Tom Ritchey is a Research Director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm. He maintains the website of the Swedish Morphological Society, where the original article can be downloaded at: http://www.swemorph.com. Tom can be contacted at: ritchey@swemorph.com




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