The concept of "wicked problems" was originally proposed by H. J. Rittel (a pioneering theorist of design and planning, and late professor at the University of California, Berkeley) and M. Webber (1) in a seminal treatise for social planning. Rittel expounded on the nature of ill-defined design and planning problems which he termed "wicked" to contrast against the relatively "tame" problems of mathematics, chess, or puzzle solving. Wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements; and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies. Rittel and Webber stated that while solving a wicked problem, the solution of one aspect may reveal or create another, even more complex problem.
Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues (for an extreme case, consider what it would take to "solve" terrorism, where even the term terrorism is highly controversial and difficult to define). Problems whose solution require large groups of individuals to change their mindsets and behaviors are likely to be a wicked problem. For examples of analyses of world-scale wicked problems, you can read about the work done by the Millennium Project of the American Council of the United Nations University.
Rittel developed what he called the "Issues Based Information System" (IBIS (http://www.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0104.html)) framework (which enables groups to decompose problems into questions, ideas and arguments), to better deal with wicked problems. Jeff Conklin Ph.D., a computer scientist, while expanding upon IBIS (2), developed gIBIS ("group IBIS") and Dialogue Mapping (http://cognexus.org/id41.htm), combinations of computer-based tools and process methodology designed to help groups further understand, and help solve wicked problems.
In the last decade, other computer scientists (3) have pointed out that software development shares many properties with other design practices (particularly that people-, process-, and technology-problems have to be considered equally), and have incorporated Rittel's concepts into their software design methodologies. The design and integration of complex software-defined services that use the Web (Web services) can be construed as an evolution from previous models of software design, and therefore becomes a wicked problem also.
According to Conklin, the four defining characteristics of wicked problems are:
- The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution
- Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
- Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
- The problem is never solved.
The following characteristics further describe wicked problems:
- Wicked problems do not have an exhaustive set of potential solutions.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- Discrepancies in representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways--the choice of explanation in turn determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique--lessons-learned are hard to transfer across to other problems.
- Wicked problems are often "solved" through group efforts.
- Wicked problems require inventive/creative solutions.
- Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences, and may cause additional problems.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule(s).
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but instead better, worse, or good enough.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- The planner or designer (solving the problem) has no inherent right to solve the problem, and no permission to make mistakes.
1. Rittel, H., and M. Webber; "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" pp 155-169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973.
2. Conklin Ph.D., Jeff; "Dialog Mapping: An Approach for Wicked Problems," CogNexus Institute, 2003
3. DeGrace, Peter, and Hulet Stahl, L.; "Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catalog of Modern Engineering Paradigms," Prentice Hall PTR; 1st edition, February 12, 1998, ISBN: 013590126X
-  (http://dynaweb.oac.cdlib.org:8088/dynaweb/uchist/public/inmemoriam/inmemoriam1992/@Generic__BookTextView/2560;pt=2560;uf=0) Horst W.J. Rittel, Architecture: Berkeley, 1930-1990, Professor of The Science of Design
-  (http://www.cognexus.org/id42.htm) Wicked Problems; Conklin, Jeff; CogNexus Institute
-  (http://www.poppendieck.com/wicked.htm) "Wicked Problems", Poppendieck L.L.C., 2002
-  (http://kmi.open.ac.uk/people/sbs/org-knowledge/pakm96/negotiating/negotiating.html) "Negotiating the Construction of Organisational Memory Using Hypermedia Argument Spaces," Simon Buckingham Shum