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Charlie discusses the theory of wicked problems, what it means for business continuity professionals and how we are able to implement this idea into our plans.

This week I wanted to share with you all an academic theory around wicked problems. I came across this term during my reading on crisis management, but until very recently I wasn’t aware of the definition of the word nor where it came from.

Institute of Strategic Risk Management (IRSM)

At the moment, I am studying a Level 6 course, which is equivalent to an undergraduate degree with the IRSM. The institute is led by Dr. David Rubens and its aim is to bridge the gap between practitioners and academics. In my opinion, there is a huge gap between the two and each operates in its own silo without much crossover. The courses are self-study and have no lectures, but they are much more affordable than a degree or MSc. They also have a huge amount of material in both papers and webinars on their website, so there is no need to have access to a University academic library. The Institute has exploded in numbers over the last couple of years and has chapters around the world. Those on the course, as far as I can see, often have a background in security and are looking to increase their knowledge and employability. I would push any readers of this bulletin in the direction of the Institute if they are looking for academic knowledge to complement their practitioner experience. To learn more about IRSM click here.

Wicked Problems & Where They Came From

The original paper ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ was published in 1973, by Professor of Science Design, Horst Rittell and Professor of City Planning, Melvin Webber, they were both working at the University of California, Berkeley. This paper explains the basis of wicked problems, their basic premise being that:

”The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of the problems. They are wicked problems, whereas science has been developed to deal with tame problems”.

Their work was in urban planning, and how to design and develop a successful community. In the paper, they concluded that there were “no solutions in the sense of definitive and objective answers”. This work has been picked up by others and used as a framework for other incidents and crises that management should be able to deal with.

The nature of wicked problems

1. There is no definitive formation of wicked problems

For tame problems, all the information needed to understand and solve the issue can be stated. For wicked problems, this is not the case. To frame a wicked problem, you have to frame it in line with your ideas for solving it. To describe it, you have to look at every possible solution, and every question you ask yourself depends on your idea for solving the problem, and which approach you want to take.

Take the ‘war on drugs’ issue, is it a social, poverty, economic, health or policing issue? Your understanding of the problem will depend on what you see as the solution. If you come at it from a health issue, your solution may be to use rehabilitation programmes and non-criminalisation methods for getting people off drugs. However, that still leads us to a policing issue and then the social conditions that lead to people taking drugs in the first place. If there was an easy solution, we would have solved the problem already. This theory shows us that drugs in society is a wicked problem that we will continue to be unable to solve.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule

How do you know when you have solved a wicked problem? They are not easy to define, and you can always do better. Often we might have to decide that “this is the best we can do within the limitations we have”. Coming back to the drugs problem, the police will continue to fight the problem, but essentially the police cannot solve this issue within a certain time frame, so they need to keep the impact of drugs on the wider society at an acceptable level and this is good enough.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad

The solutions to wicked problems cannot be comprehensively judged to be a success or a failure. The solution implemented can be judged as ‘better or worse or good enough’.

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

For tame problems, you can determine fairly easily how good the solution is once you have implemented the idea. The solution is under the control of a few people who are involved and interested in the problem. In dealing with wicked problems, any solution will generate waves of repercussions, which will take time to show themselves and we will not know how successful this has been until all those repercussions have played themselves out.

In Scotland, we have one of the worst levels of drug-related deaths in Europe. This will not be down to one factor but a number of facts and decisions which we are only now seeing the consequences of.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’ because there is no opportunity to learn from trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.

For wicked problems, there is not the opportunity to model lots of different solutions and decide upon the best one, as you are never sure what the consequences and repercussions of the implemented solution will be. Every attempt at a solution will change the nature of the problem, it leaves traces of the solution so it cannot be undone. In the paper, there is the example, “one can not build a freeway to see how it works, and then easily correct it after unsatisfactory performance”.

6. Wicked problems do not have an innumerable (or an exhaustively descriptive) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan

There is not a fixed criterion in which you can prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered. With ill-defined problems and ill-defined solutions, it is up to those managing it to decide on the solutions, and when exotic solutions are proposed whether to try them or not.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique

Although problems may share a number of similarities, we have seen before, what makes them essentially unique are that there could be a “distinguishing property that is of overriding importance”. If we take a look at the response to the present COVID pandemic and the lessons we learnt from the Spanish Influenza of 1918, you cannot compare them. The world which we now live in is very different, and so the solution from the Spanish Influenza may not be relevant to this one.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem

Tackling the problem may lead to unforeseen consequences in different areas. If we try to take all the issues into account, the problem becomes so large and impossible to solve. The paper we have been discussing also mentions that trying to solve the issue in small increments (nudge before nudge was invented) does not solve the main problem and may make the problem worse. Let’s take the NHS, are the funding issues a symptom of our unhealthy society, and the huge risk in obesity? To solve this problem, do we need to tackle it at a societal level or is it just an economic, tax and spending argument?

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 resolution of the problem

Depending on who you get to frame the problem, will propose the solution. If we see drugs as a law and order issue, we will end up with a policing solution and the same way if we see it as a health issue, we will end up with a health solution. Where you start will determine the proposed solution.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong

If we look at the UK government’s response to the pandemic and the easing of restrictions since summer, we will not know whether this was the correct decision for many years. There are a lot of factors involved and we will start noticing the many effects in later years. The level of infection has recently gone up, so this shows us that it was a bad idea, but the number has now started to go back down again, so maybe it was a good idea. Did the ending of lockdown make any difference? Or was the lack of vaccinated people the main cause of the increase in cases, hospitalisations and death? We may never know, so in wicked problems, the person who implements the solution may have implemented the right solution or they may not have.

I believe when managing incidents, we as business continuity professionals want rules, tools, techniques and plans for managing incidents hoping that if we follow them there will be a successful outcome. We find it hard that with all our knowledge there are still problems that do not have an easy solution, or there is no solution at all. I think that if we can identify the incident we are dealing with is wicked, then by following and understanding the ideas in this paper we can at least understand what we are dealing with, and we can also manage the expectations of others who are dealing with it and those who are affected by it.

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