Wicked Problems and Category Mistakes

This is a brief introduction to the notion of a wicked problem. It is based on the highly-cited paper by Rittel and Webber (1973). The following characterise wicked problems:

There is no definitive formulation. In a sense, formulating a wicked problem is the problem

There are no stopping rules. The process of intervening is also the same as understanding the nature of the problem – the intervention is “good enough” or the best that can be achieved within other limitations (e.g. of time, budget…)

Interventions are not right or wrong, they can only be viewed as making things better or worse for certain interests i.e. the intervention has made things both better and worse depending on who you ask

There is no immediate or ultimate test of an intervention. Interventions will generate “waves of consequences” over a period of time

Interventions are “one-shot operations”, experiments are difficult to conduct, every intervention counts significantly, they are essentially unique in nature

No enumerable, exhaustively describable, set of possible interventions

Every wicked problem is essentially unique. “Essentially” implies that aspects may be common, but to think in terms of categories or “classes” of wicked problems with common “solutions” is misleading

Wicked problems can be considered as symptoms of other problems i.e. there is inherent systemicity in the world

Can be contested at the level of explanation, there is likely to be conflicting evidence or data

The corollary of this definition is that certain statements about problems are likely to be rendered false or meaningless if it can be shown that the problem is actually wicked, in effect the statement is demonstrating that a category mistake is being made. The following is not an exhaustive list:

  1. ‘Solving’ a wicked problem is a contradiction, likewise producing a ‘solution’. Neither are possible
  2. Words that suggest an objective point of view used in the context of the problem at the very least need to be debated e.g. words like optimal, best, right, smart, correct, … all suggest the question – for who? Alternatively, no decision taken should ever be considered wrong.
  3. Any statement of measurable quantity that supports an argument for the problem getting better or worse without acknowledging the dynamic complexity that systemicity implies i.e. “…worse then better…” is a more believable statement given dynamic complexity
  4. Statements that appear to deny the systemic nature of the problem e.g. ignoring requisite variety
  5. Containing irrefutable assertions of fact e.g. “…this proves conclusively that…”
  6. Use of binary choices, any mention of “silver bullets”
  7. Misrepresenting or ignoring plurality e.g. “The public…”
  8. Emphasis on producing plans rather planning as a process

If any of these corollaries are contested e.g. if someone claims to have a solution to a wicked problem, then they are likely to be making a claim about only an aspect of the problem, or only from a certain viewpoint; or their formulation is not that of a wicked problem i.e. they are talking about something ‘tame’. Statements that contain phrases like “…optimal solution…” or “…this proves conclusively that if we do this we will have the best outcome…” in the context of a wicked problem definitely signal a likely category mistake.

Category mistakes are a warning sign – be sceptical of claims being made. They suggest either misunderstanding or partiality.

It’s worth reading the Rittel and Webber paper. Despite its age, it still does an exceptionally good job of reminding us of the characteristics of wicked problems that’s just as relevant today

The first steps towards a coherent approach to problem formulation can be found in Rosenhead’s (1996) introduction to Problem Structuring Methods.

(Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730
Rosenhead, J. (1996). What’s the problem? An introduction to problem structuring methods. Interfaces, 26(6), 117-131. doi:10.1287/inte.26.6.117)