Top Nav

Wicked Problems

wicked problem1




By Tom Peterson

A former teacher, Lily Eskelsen García is now president of the National Education Association. Representing public school teachers, the NEA is the country’s largest labor union. One day she found herself sitting next to a talkative businessman on a plane.

He’s telling me where he’s going and what he’s doing and what his business is. And he says, “So what do you do, Darlin’?”

I said, “Well, I’m a teacher. And now I work with the National Education Association.

He stopped smiling and he said, “I’ve heard about you people.” He said, “I hear you need this and I hear you need that. Then I hear you need something else. To tell you the truth, Darlin’, I’m getting tired of hearing it. I’m a businessman. I want you to bottom line it for me. I want you to tell me right now what is the one single thing that would solve all of our problems in public schools?”

I said, “That’s easy, what we really need are fewer people who think there’s one single thing that would solve all of our problems in public schools.”

What is a wicked problem?

In 1973 Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two U.C., Berkeley professors, published a paper describing Wicked Problems. They said that the traditional scientific approach doesn’t work in solving social problems. Problem solving in the industrial age focused on efficiency, and the challenges our scientists and engineers address are similar. They all focus on “tame” or “benign” problems such as solving a mathematical equation or analyzing the chemical structure of an organic compound. For these, they say, “the mission is clear. It’s clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.”

wicked problems4On the other hand, a wicked problem is one that’s not easy to describe, it has many causes, it’s hard or impossible to “solve.” It occurs in a social context where diverse stakeholders understand it differently.

“Fixing” public schools, a wicked problem

Explore what’s facing your local public schools, for example, and you’ll quickly find yourself tangled in a web of issues. They operate in an environment where many students are siphoned off by private schools. Many were these were created as a component of white flight, so add race issues. Charter schools siphon off even more kids, especially the ones whose parents are engaged enough to get their kids out of public schools. They also siphon off funds from public schools and are typically anti-union, so enter the issues surrounding organized labor. The newspaper and other media in my state present charter schools, supported by anti-union Walmart, as the creative solution to a failed system. Public schools find themselves underfunded, undercut, under attack.

“Poverty is the swamp,” said William Clapp. “It doesn’t create all the problems, but it’s the sticky goo you’ve got to wade through to solve anything, whether it’s environmental problems or political instability.” Okay, the public school issues in my town are related to poverty. And I believe the root of poverty is the lack of democracy. It’s about people’s ability to determine matters that impact their lives. So now we’re into issues such as voting rights, political influence, grassroots organizing…. Add to that who controls city planning, who controls the media, taxes….

wicked problem 3My simple description here shows my own biases. You see public schools from a different angle. Another person, say, the businessman on the plane, sees it differently from you and me. We all view the challenge in our peculiar way. This adds to the wickedness of the challenges facing public schools.

It’s all connected

You get the idea. Pull on a single thread of any wicked problem and you quickly discover you’re pulling many, many threads.

“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops,” says Alan Watts. “And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.” It’s also what a wicked problem can look like. Each piece reflects and connects to the others.

Ten Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber presented the ten characteristics of wicked problems:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad [or better or worse].
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • wicked problemsEvery 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.
  • 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.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • 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.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Stability and justice in the Middle East, affordable quality health care in the United States, economic disparity, racism, women’s rights, homelessness and so on. Wicked problems every one. As is any fractal piece of any of these.

Mahatma Gandhi didn’t completely “solve” his challenges of both independence and convincing Indians to live in harmony. Martin Luther King, didn’t solve his challenges. Neither have Gloria Steinem, Caesar Chavez, Al Gore or Malala Yousafzai. They all took on extremely wicked problems. And we live today in a better world because of their work. Hope and progress lie in the struggle forward.

The world change problem you are working on is probably wicked. If so, you and those working with you may never solve it. But it’s critical to all of us that you keep at it.

Wicked Problems Links

Spider photos in order (all from Creative Commons): Mharti, Luc Viatour, Thisisbossi, Thomas Bressen.



  1. Evocative grantmaking can create adaptive organizations - Stakeholder Health - October 10, 2016

    […] Grantmaking foundations are working with health systems and other organizations to address the wicked problems of social determinants of […]

  2. Mind Mapping for people changing the world | Thunderhead WorksThunderhead Works - August 26, 2017

    […] maps are great for seeing connections between “wicked problems,” such as childhood obesity or mass incarceration, that have many causes and may be hard […]

  3. Asset Mapping, a powerful tool for improving communities | Thunderhead WorksThunderhead Works - September 3, 2017

    […] Wicked Problems […]

  4. Review: Design Thinking for the Greater Good - Thunderhead Works - February 1, 2018

    […] to Australia and South Texas used design thinking to grapple with and address a variety of “wicked problems.” And these tough, complex social challenges that connect with other tough challenges are perhaps […]

Leave a Reply