How do you tackle a ‘wicked’ issue?

{This article from the Guardian is a real find for two reasons. First, I think it is the great reflection on a now identified situation which has direct relation to so many of the issues which I hear around climate change adaptation policy issues. I mean that we are stuck just now trying to find a way forward toward a sustainable life for seven (and then ten) billion people. We can go solar, but that demands rare earths and mining and more environmental problems. Batteries present a similar dilemma. In every direction we turn, there are challenges and scrifices, and we have precious little time to figure out what to do, which only compounds the problem. This exact situation is what the concept of ‘Wicked issue’ is all about, and I hope it becomes common place because naming is half the victory. The second reason this is a real find is that the originator of the concept of a ‘wicked issue’, which the article below is about, is none other than Tim Curtis who is a fellow Orthodox Christian with an impressive list of publications behind his name, some of which I read long ago in my seminary days.} econmy by Robert Ashton

I’ve long known that academics have an uncanny knack for knowing how enterprise works. The problem how their findings translate into language we can all understand. Because too often we can’t.

You see enterprise is really all about human behaviour and interaction. Like it or not, we are all pretty much alike. The way we respond to situations is surprisingly predictable. History, psychology and our anthropological hard wiring make us easy to read, but only when viewed by the objective researcher.

Our own emotions can cloud our ability to see the context of the challenges we face. That’s why I enjoy reading academic papers and distilling out practical advice. On this occasion, the learning was very much for me. An unassuming yet innovative social entrepreneur and academic Tim Curtis at the University of Northamptonhas written a paper within which I discovered myself.

It was a moment of revelation as profound as that moment described by Alan Bennett in The History Boys. Bennett’s protagonist, Hector, finds a passage in a book that describes a feeling he had previously thought unique to him.

You see we’re all sailing in uncharted waters. Economic uncertainty, funding cuts and a government that thinks it wise to put its eggs into a few very large baskets are all making it tough for the smaller frontline organisation. Even the Localism Act; a licence to liberate so much from the dead hand of public sector control is being strangled by the inflexibility of that dead hand.

So I and others who operate at the frontline are constantly seeking to define for funders what cannot be defined. The need is recognised, but the solution hidden until the project is underway. It’s like playing pass the parcel. You know there are lots of layers to unwrap, but you don’t know how many or quite what the prize looks like. All you can do is play the music and bend the rules, making the odd tear to reveal what might be ahead.

Tim Curtis calls these conundrums “wicked issues”. “A wicked issue,” he says, “is a social problem in which the various stakeholders can barely agree on what the definition of the problem should be, let alone on what the solution is.”

He goes on to say that, “social issues and problems are intrinsically wicked or messy, and it is very dangerous for them to be treated as if they were ‘tame’ and ‘benign’. Real world problems have no definitive formulation; no point at which it is definitely solved; solutions are not true or false; there is no test for a solution; every solution contributes to a further social problem; there are no well-defined set of solutions; wicked problems are unique; they are symptomatic of other problems; they do not have simple causes; and have numerous possible explanations which in turn frame different policy responses; and, in particular, the social enterprise is not allowed to fail in their attempts to solve wicked problems.”

Perhaps you are beginning to see what I mean. It’s what’s stopping a school finding cash for a new campus, a hospice gain public support and a successful disability charity the support of its local council, who choose to slash their funding and contract a private company instead.

Here are the six criteria Tim uses to define a wicked issue. As you read them, reflect on your own experience and wait for the penny to drop.

Six Criteria for Wicked Problems

1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Every solution that is offered exposes new aspects of the problem, requiring further adjustments. There is no definitive statement of the problem: these problems are ill-structured and feature an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.

2. There is no stopping rule. Since there is no definitive problem, there is also no definitive the solution. The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources such as time, money or energy, not when an optimal solution emerges.

3. Solutions are not right or wrong. They are simply better/worse or good enough/not good enough. The determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula.

4. Each is essentially unique and novel. No two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed. Over time we can acquire wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.

5. There is no given alternative solution. A host of potential solutions may be devised, but another host are never even thought of. It is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgement to determine which should be pursued and implemented.

6. Every solution is a one-shot operation. Every attempt has consequences. This is the catch 22 of wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution is expensive and has lasting consequences that may spawn new wicked problems.

And without wishing to hammer the public sector, it is usually those who try to follow old rules to solve these new wicked problems that get in the way of progress. There are no guarantees, no predictable timelines and no assurance that everyone you think should be involved will remain involved at the end. I guess it’s why shipping the whole thing out to private companies appeals. But this only masks the problem; it cannot solve it.

Tim rather neatly describes the four barriers those of us who attack wicked projects most often have to scramble over, duck around and run at and knock over:

1. Lock down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the problem. Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s success.

2. Cast the problem as just like a previous problem that has been solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates the picture.

3. Give up on trying to find a good solution. Just follow orders, do your job and try not to get in trouble.

4. Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on selecting from among them. A specific way to do this is to frame the problem in either/or terms.

While it may seem appealing in the short run, attempting to tame a wicked problem will always fail in the long run. The problem will simply reassert itself, perhaps in a different guise, as if nothing had been done; or worse, the tame solution will exacerbate the problem.

Which brings me to my plea: we are living in very different times. What worked before really will not work now and more of you need to recognise your challenges as wicked. You’ll need to respond with innovation, creativity and most of all, by involving everyone you can think of and more besides. You have to start with the problem and work out, not pitch for a pre-defined government solution and try to make it fit.

Look around you. See where wicked problems have already been solved. Take comfort from that and start the process. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy summed it up best when he said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” That defines my working life and I hope will soon define yours too.

Extracts taken from: Tim Curtis’s essay The challenge and risks of innovation in social enterprises in Robert Gunn and Christopher Durkin’s book Social Entrepreneurship: A skills approach.

Robert Ashton is a business author, social entrepreneur and a solver of wicked problems. 

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To join the social enterprise network, click here.

Kaleeg W. Hainsworth

Dad of three kids, author (An Altar in the Wilderness), priest in awesome church, Principal of Bright Wing Books, designer, author, speaker, podcaster (getting back to it after a long hiatus), backpacker, ecologist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.