Wicked Problems

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I had not heard this phrase until a few days back. 

So I Googled it and found this:

wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that can not be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

When I read a bit more, it pleasantly shocked me that:

The phrase was originally used in social planning. Its modern sense was introduced in 1967 by C. West Churchman in a guest editorial Churchman wrote in the journal Management Science, responding to a previous use of the term by Horst Rittel.

What? I am a Department Editor of Management Science, and have published there since 1993, and had not heard of this!

What I really liked is:

Churchman discussed the moral responsibility of operations research “to inform the manager in what respect our ‘solutions’ have failed to tame his wicked problems”. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formally described the concept of wicked problems in a 1973 treatise, contrasting “wicked” problems with relatively “tame”, soluble problems in mathematicschess, or puzzle solving.

Why and how did this phrase come to my awareness?

I was invited to speak at Collective Intelligence (by Tepper colleague Anita Woolley a few months back) about OrganJet.

I did not understand why she had asked me at that time. Now I do: I did not know that I have been dealing with a wicked problem!

The specific session, a combination of short plenary talks by four of us followed by a panel discussion, is moderated by Melissa Valentine, who had sent out a planning email to get organized and mentioned that our Plenary session is titled Wicked Problems and Collective Intelligence.

A face-saving (for me!) news is that at least one of the other speakers also had not heard this phrase before! 😏

Who are the other speakers in the session, I wondered.

Alex Dehgan of Conservation X Labs

I will be talking about the Usaid grand challenges for development program, my current work through Conservation X Labs on running conservation challenges for underlying drivers of extinction, and our current approaches to using both competition and collaboration as tools for improving the quality of the innovations.  Finally I will talk about our digital makerspace – modeled a bit on quirky and open source drug discovery.

Deborah Gordon of Stanford University

I will be talking about the general principles we can learn from how ant colonies work collectively and without any central control to respond to changing environments.

Tom Malone of MIT

I will probably talk a little about our work on Climate Colab, a project to crowdsource the problem of what we humans can do about climate change—a wicked problem if there ever was one.  And then I plan to talk a little about the five different kinds of superminds for decision-making in my recent book (SUPERMINDS).  The five types are: hierarchies, democracies, markets, communities, and ecosystems.  I think that various combinations of these different kinds of superminds can deal with wicked problems, even if the problems themselves are not formally solvable.

This is where I stand:

I had not heard of this phrase before.

I had not heard of this conference before.

I had not heard of any of the other speakers or the moderator before.

So, I am really looking forward to meeting them all and hearing their talks as everything about this is totally new to me!

Because, as you know, from HBS Case OrganJet and GuardianWings:

I like newness. It’s very important to me personally to do new things.

Just got back from a delightful dinner at Ace Hotel with many of the speakers and conference organizers. It will be fun tomorrow!

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