On Wicked Problems

A picture of a jumping cholla cactus on a rainy day.
Photo by Caleb Ekeroth on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/tzzEaJqBrBY

Rittel and Webber (1973) coined the phrase “wicked problems” to describe the kinds of problems that people working in the social sector – particularly government policy planners – deal with, and how those problems are of a different nature and class than those problems that

I was tasked to read “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” as the first assigned reading in my doctoral program, and I was excited to read it. It’s obviously one of the seminal/foundational articulations for design and design thinking theory, and wicked problems, both as a concept and as a term for the kinds of challenges people working in (complex) social systems face, and it’s one that I’ve come across many times. But perhaps predictably, I hadn’t actually read directly from the source. One of the elements of a doctoral study program that I’m anticipating is a structure and curriculum that introduces me to original thinkers and works that I’ve probably only caught through secondary or tertiary accounts.

The first thing that caught my attention is how Rittel and Webber start to frame the context in which they were writing – 1973 in the United States, with the turbulence of protest and activism over civil rights of the 1960s sliding into the rearview and the Vietnam War waning – as one where an old way of solving problems, namely for social efficiency, is no longer sufficient. They write:

“The seeming consensus, that might once have allowed distributional problems to be dealt with, is being eroded by the growing awareness of the nation’s pluralism and of the differentiation of values that accompanies differentiation of publics. The professionalized cognitive and occupational styles that were refined in the first half of this century, based in Newtonian mechanistic physics, are not readily adapted to contemporary conceptions of interacting open systems and to contemporary concerns with equity. A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through such systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent reexamination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet” (156).

It’s interesting just to start with this frame, especially as I reflect and write about this in 2018, when, for all the ways that our society has become more attentive to our systemic inequalities and institutionalized racism, we are still coming to terms with (and learning through all the challenges of what it it means to come to terms with) our pluralism, differentiation of values, and concerns with equity. What Rittels and Webber don’t seem to explicitly knowledge, and I don’t know whether I would have expected them to in their context, is that pluralism and differentiation of values are more likely seen, in and of themselves, as positive or beneficial forces for working through complex systems – especially in a democratic society – than hinderances or negatively complicating factors. What’s more, I’m likely to view the societal problems they were viewing at the time as a kind of creative destruction of an older order, a long overdue and welcomed change to systems that were (and still are) often dehumanizing and detrimental to human flourishing.

Regardless, the point they seem to be making is that contemporary social problems (then and now, IMO) don’t seem to be solvable simply by moving through a deductive or even an inductive form of straightforward problem solving. They also touch on this interesting tension between our alternating cultural senses of optimism and deep pessimism and/or resignation. Clearly, we’re still wrestling with those tensions today.

What’s also interesting to read – in their own words – is that the very nature of the problems makes problem solving difficult because they are hard to understand and even more harder to pin down in terms of identifying the precise approach to solving them. They write “we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies)” (159). They offer ten “distinguishing properties of planning-type problems,” with careful analysis of each kind (160-167):

  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 planner has no right to be wrong.

These properties do some overlapping and share connective tissue, but it’s easy to see how individual properties might be more apparent for a field like education. The second class reading for the opening week, Jordan, Kleinsasser and Roe (2014), explores examples of wicked problems in education, including literacy learning.

My primary interest going forward will be to explore the connective tissue we can make between Rittels and Webber and educational research and inquiry. I will likely expand on this further, but this was a good first place to document some thoughts.


Rittel, H., & Webber, W. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.