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Understanding Wicked Problems

At some level, all organizational changes are wicked problems.  That is, they have characteristics that make them best guesses at the way the organization should change and move forward.  Inherently organizational, transformational changes meet many of the criteria for wicked problems, and they are therefore unsolvable.

Wicked Planning

It was 1973 when Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber first spoke about the idea of wicked problems.  In their article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” they exposed the set of constraints that they felt prevented a general theory of planning.  They realized that in social planning there weren’t always clean answers, clear precedents, or stopping rules.  In the article, they formulated ten criteria for problems that would define them as “wicked.”  They are:

  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 the explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong

Wicked Change

Most executives, change managers, and change agents find it difficult to quantify their change and know when they’ve done “enough” of the change.  Most transformational changes that are proposed aren’t ones where the effect can be easily measured and quantified quickly.  In most cases, it takes time to measure the impact of the change on the organization and see whether the net impact was positive or negative.  Whatever the change attempt, its success or failure will influence the ability to successfully implement future changes.  In short, transformational change is wicked.  In most cases, it exhibits most if not all the criteria that Rittel describes.

The impact is profound, because linear models are insufficient for addressing wicked problems.  They don’t yield to simple formulaic approaches.  Instead, they require approaches that iterate and adapt to the changing conditions to mitigate the negative outcomes of the change.

Something Wicked this Way Comes

A striking example of the challenges of wicked problems is pointed to by Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations, and it’s the work of Lauriston Sharp to understand “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians.”  The situation is that missionaries wanted to spread the gospel, and as a part of that, they offered steel axe heads to Australian aboriginal tribes who had previously only had access to stone-axe heads.  While the multiple goals were positive in intent, the outcomes of the interventions were quite negative.

The tribes found themselves in a period of greater prostitution and murders that were committed with the new steel axes.  In retrospect, the disruption of the social structure, which had younger men ritually asking the elder men who owned the stone axe heads to loan them the tool when the steel versions were more freely available, should have been predictable.  However, in the moment, no one considered the destabilization of the social order.  This is often the case in organizations that introduce transformational change efforts without the ability to predict what will happen when the change is implemented.

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