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

Cross posed to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nui


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