Wicked Problems

by Elo4 min read16th Aug 20167 comments

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Personal Blog

Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/wicked-problems/

Nothing is a wicked problem.

When I started researching problems and problem solving and solutions and meta-solving processes I stumbled across a wicked problem. This is from Wikipedia:

Rittel and Webber's 1973 formulation of wicked problems in social policy planning specified ten characteristics:[3][4]

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  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.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Conklin later generalized the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy.  The defining characteristics are:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Defeating a wicked problem

It took me a while to realise what a wicked problem was.  It is evil.  It's a challenge.  It's a one-shot task that you don't really understand until you are attempting to solve it, and then you influence it by trying to solve it.  It's wicked.  And then I started paying attention to everything around me.  And suddenly being a social human was a wicked problem.  Every new interaction is not like the last ones, as soon as you enter the interaction it's too late; and then you only have one shot.  Any action towards the problem adds more complexity to the problem.

Then I looked to time management.  Time management is a wicked problem.  You start out knowing nothing.  It takes time to work out what takes time.  And by the time you think you have a system in place you are already burning more time.  Just catching up on a bad system is failing at the wicked problem.

Then I looked to cooking.  No two ingredients are the same.  Even if you are cooking a thing for the 100th time, the factors of the day, the humidity, temperature, it's going to be different.  You can't know what's going to happen.

Then I looked at politics.  And that's what wicked problems were invented around, social problems where trying to solve the problem changes the problem.  And nothing makes it easier.

Then I took my man-with-a-hammer syndrome and I whacked myself on the head with it.


Okay so not everything is a hammer-nail wicked problem.  Even wicked problems are not a wicked problem.  There are problems out there that are really wicked problems, but it would be rare that you find one.

There is a trick to solving a wicked problem.  The trick is to work out how it's not a wicked problem.  Sure if it's wicked by design so be it.  But real problems in the real world are only pretending to be wicked problems.

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

Yeah, okay.  So you don't really get the problem.  That's cool.  You have done problems before.  And done problems like this before too.  The worst thing to do in the case of being presented with a problem which is not understood is to never attempt it.  If you don't understand - it's time to quantify what you do understand and quantify what you don't understand. After that it's time to look at how much uncertainty you can get away with and how to solve that.  If in doubt refer to the book How to measure anything.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Real wicked problems don't have a stopping rule but real world problems do.  Or you can give them one anyway.  How many years is enough years of life.  "I don't know I will decide when I get there".  How much money is enough money? "I will first earn my next 10 million dollarydoos and then decide what to do next".  Yes.  A wicked problem has no stopping rule.  But that's not the real world.  In the real world even a fake stopping rule is good enough for your purposes.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

Okay.  Maybe a tricky one.  Lots of things are not right or wrong.  "should I earn to give, or should I bring around FAI sooner?".  Who knows?  Right now people are arguing about it but we don't really know.  If you are making decisions based on right or wrong you probably want to do the right thing.  We know already that if you can't decide that makes all options equally good and irrelevant what you choose.  If you can make one more right than the other - do that.  It's probably not a real wicked problem.  "How should I format this word document" is not a right or wrong, but it's also irrelevant.

4.  Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.

Yes.  If you are facing a truly novel and unique problem there is nothing I can say that can help you.  But if you are not, there are many options.  You can:

  • build a model scenario and test solutions
  • look for existing examples of similar problems and find similar solutions
  • try to break the problem into smaller known parts
  • consider doing nothing about the problem and see if it solves itself

IF a problem is truly unique, then you really have no reason to fear the unknown because it was not possible to be prepared.  If it's not unique - be prepared (we are all always being prepared for problems all the time)

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'

Yea, these are hard.  Maybe some of the solutions to 4 will help.  Build models, try search or create similar scenarios (why do trolley problems exist other than to test one-shot problems with pre-thought-out examples).  You only get one shot to launch a nuclear missile the first time (and we are very glad that we didn't ignite the atmosphere that time).  Now days we have computer modelling.  We have prediction markets, we have Bayes.  We can know what we don't know.  And we can make it significantly less dangerous to launch into space - risking the lives of astronauts when we do.

6.  Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Yes.  Wicked problems don't, but real world problems could, and often do.  Find those solutions, or the degrees of freedom in your problem.  Search and try to confirm possible options, find friend scenarios, and use everything you have.

Nothing is a wicked problem.


Meta: This took 1 hour to write and has been on my mind for months.  Coming soon: Defining what is a problem

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7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:28 PM
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The traditional solution to wicked problems is called "muddling through".

Quotes from post and this: http://www.cognexus.org/Rotman-interview_SharedUnderstanding.pdf

It took me a while to realise what a wicked problem was. It is evil. It's a challenge.

"Wicked" in this context means resistance to resolution, rather than evil.

I looked to cooking. No two ingredients are the same. Even if you are cooking a thing for the 100th time, the factors of the day, the humidity, temperature, it's going to be different.

This doesn’t sound like a wicked problem to me. I think a more “wicked” problem would be something like where you have to create a meal for a whole hall full of people. Now, you want to make a meal that everyone will like and you have a limited amount of resources, so you can’t create separate meals for everyone, but some people might be vegetarians, some might have allergies, some might want one type of meal in particular etc. There is a social complexity aspect to this problem. You cannot come up with a best meal because there are different stakeholders with strongly-held beliefs about what the problem is.

As a current example there is global warming and energy policy where people from the developed world have one set of views about what needs to be done, and the developing world has a completely different set of views. Nobody ‘owns’ the problem and no-one has a clear idea of how to work out the answers


The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

This is less about quantifying things and more about how requirements change or are only realized after the solution of the problem or part of the problem is implemented. For example, let’s say you are renovating a house and there are 10 people involved. Every time you change something like a chair you need to check that it still aligns with everything else. You might need to go through many iterations of having to change and rechange things.

Every solution that is offered exposes new aspects of the problem, requiring further adjustments to the potential solutions. There is no definitive statement of ‘the problem’: these problems are ill-structured and feature an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.


Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

How do you make sufficient stopping rules when there are conflicts over what the problem is?

Since there is no definitive ‘the problem’, there is also no definitive ‘the solution.’ The problem-solving process ends when you run out of resources such as time, money or energy, not when an optimal solution emerges.


Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'

Developing models, trying scenarios etc. all take effort and send you down a particular track in terms of the conception of the problem. I think that wicked problems are like the conglomeration of multiple problems or people's conception of the problem. Each time you try to move forward on one part of the problem you kind of entrench yourself in seeing the problem that particular way and it also spawns new problems directly related to only that one conception of the problem.

Every attempt has consequences. This is the ‘Catch 22’ of wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution is expensive and has lasting consequences that may spawn new wicked problems.


Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

A host of potential solutions may be devised, but another host that are never even thought of. Thus it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgement to determine which should be pursued and implemented.

this document agrees with my hypothesis about how to solve wicked problems. it says:

  1. Lock down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the problem. Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s success.
  2. Cast the problem as ‘just like’ a previous problem that has been solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates the picture.
  3. Give up on trying to find a good solution. Just follow orders, do your job and try not to get in trouble.
  4. Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on selecting from among them. A specific way to do this is to frame the problem in ‘either/or’ terms, such as ‘Should we attack Iraq OR let the terrorists take over the world?’

Actually, if you read further the above is described as taming the problem, which is bad, and is not solving it.

Taming a wicked problem is a very natural and common way of coping with it. Instead of dealing with the full wickedness of the problem, people simplify it in various ways to make it more manageable and solvable

While it may seem appealing in the short run, attempting to tame a wicked problem will always fail in the long run. The problem will simply reassert itself, perhaps in a different guise, as if nothing had been done; or worse, the tame solution will exacerbate the problem.

For a further explanation, see this document

There is a variety of ways that organisations try to tame wicked problems by handling them too narrowly. The most common way is locking down the problem definition. This often involves addressing a sub-problem that can be solved. If the problem is how to reduce violence in schools, for example, policy makers may focus on the more tractable, narrow problem of how to install metal detectors in school entrances. Or, if the problem is obesity in children, the more tractable but narrow problem could be removing unhealthy food from school canteens.

If policy and performance measures are limited to the sub-problem rather than the wicked problem, the problem can appear solved at least in the short-term. If the performance measure is that school canteens no longer offer unhealthy foods, for example, this may be achievable. An unintended consequence and a reassertion of the wicked problem may be that more children no longer buy their lunch at school canteens but instead miss lunch, save their lunch money, and buy junk food at the shops on the way home from school. This is also a good example of how a tame solution can exacerbate the problem—some children may now eat more unhealthy food than they did previously, and they miss their lunch! It is also another illustration of the unintended consequences that can result from interventions to address wicked problems. Unintended consequences tend to occur even more frequently if the problem has been artificially tamed, that is, it has been too narrowly addressed and the multiple causes and interconnections not fully explored prior to measures being introduced. This does not mean that at some stage in the policy formulation process it will not be necessary to identify the components of the wicked problem and possible practical solutions as part of a comprehensive and coordinated set of measures to address the problem. Obviously, the type of food offered in school canteens is part of the solution to childhood obesity. But this fragmentation of the wicked problem would ideally occur after all the interconnections and social complexities have been identified, discussed and addressed as part of a coordinated strategy.

I also found that most wicked problems could be solved, if we move it on meta-level, and after several such steps we will always stuck in the super-whicked problem of AI safety.

For example, I have longterm pain problem in my foot - the meta problem for it is aging - and to finally solve aging I need benevolent superhuman AI.

Or, we have violence problem in prisons - to solve it we need excellent government - to create ideal government we need SuperAI or a Constitution as flawless and effective as definition of AI friendliness should be.

Some wicked problems could be solved if we pour money into them, but if we do it too often we will run out money on personal or on national level. So it will be failed socialist system. It could work only if we create unlimited source of income or - on state level - will create absolutely effective economy. Socialist economy is effective only if planning is done by superAI.

Didn't you just shortcut to "In the Kingdom of God everything will be perfect"?

Did you use your plan for your wicked problems?