Sundararaman Chintamani

Apr 27, 2020

2 min read

Wicked Problems

Many a times, people come and ask me if design thinking can be used in our regular on-going projects. I used to tell them, “May be”, but the best use-cases would be “Wicked Problems”

What? Wicked problems? what do you mean? Can you elaborate what it means?

Sure. Let me not only explain what wicked problem is but also tell you about 3 basic characteristics of a wicked problem.

Definition

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.

Etymology

The phrase was originally used in social planning. Its modern sense was introduced in 1967 by C. West Churchman in a guest editorial Churchman wrote in the journal Management Science responding to a previous use of the term by Horst Rittel.

What are the basic characteristics of a wicked problem?

Uncertainty

A solution provider may not know what they need to know. Forget about the solution, the problem itself may not be clear in terms of scope, jurisdiction etc. Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define. The end-customer may not what exactly he wants and hence would be unable to give you the exact requirements. Since nothing is clear, as a solution provider, you too may not be certain what to offer. This uncertainty is the first important aspect of a wicked problem.

Dynamic Complexity

There are many instances where you don’t do anything about a problem, it will still be there in the same guise tomorrow. On the contrary, wicked problems evolve over time as they interact in the world. They are often not stable.

Inter-dependency

Wicked problems are complexly inter-dependent They are cross-cutting with several overlapping stakeholders who have different perspectives on the problem. .

A classic example of for this characteristics of a wicked problem would be the current Corona virus attack. Though it is a global issue, it is very difficult to define the scope of the problem in each country. Regarding the dynamic complexity, every day the complexity varies. Seeing the trend of the cured people, one cannot be relaxed. On the inter-dependency side, there are so many factors that can aggravate the situation. For example even when the situation is brought under control, one specific incident can make the problem re-surface again.

Wicked problems are not limited to the society. They are also prevalent in corporate situation. For example many organizations are keen in leverating digital technologies to improve their business, but they don’t know what to do and how to do? Even their IT service provider may not be able to suggest anything in this regard. No one can come out with clear requirements. This is were the empathy interview would be helpful. During the empathy interview, all the pain area of the customer as well customer’s customer are dicussed in detail and logged.

Next time if someone is sharing a vague problem statement, please examine if it is a wicked problem. If it is a wicked problem, them design thinking is the cure.