Another Take on Wicked Problems

Because I used the term wicked problems in the subtitle of my recent book, I “have Google let me know any time someone else uses the term on thesec2.0 copyInternet. Until the last couple of weeks, I hadn’t received many notifications but then I got two from organizations that I had never heard of before–which is one of the reasons I signed up for the service in the first place.

Each drove home the importance of wicked problems and complexity theory of which they are a telling example.

imgres-3The first came from Gord Hotchkiss, who is a marketing constant with an abiding interest in the complexities of human behavior. He got my attention with his definition of a wicked problem, which is as good as any I’ve seen, including my own.

Wicked problems are thorny, complex, dynamic problems that defy black and white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no – the answer always seems to be maybe. There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is “good enough – for now.”imgres

As someone who works on security rather than marketing related issues, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, his argument that we need leaders who are more flexible, open to new ideas, and creative than has been the case in the past makes even more sense in the political world where I work than in his corporate milieu which has already seen considerable movement in those directions. It is hard to be optimistic about a future in which leaders address the complexity of daily life given the current presidential campaign or the debate on dealing with ISIS here in the United States.

Without going into the vast literature on international relations, there is no doubt that it is often harder to reach global security goals than those involving a single company. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue with the fact that there are “no black and white solutions” or “linear path” or, for that matter, any single, definitive way of addressing global wicked problems.

Just a couple of days later, Google sent me a bunch of notifications about sites that carried a story about the Human Computation Institute that had originally appeared in Science. On one level, the Institute’s work seems much narrower since it is primarily interested in crowdsourcing and related tools that help researchers deal with wicked problems. Nonetheless, their work is based on the assumption that we cannot make progress in dealing with any wicked problems—like all complex issues—unless the people involved work cooperatively with each other.coupled-672x372

When all is said and done, the two sites reminded me that we rarely seek cooperative solutions (via crowdsourcing or anything else) to wicked social, economic, and political problems. At the same time, it is hard to rebut their conclusion that we suffer from our failure to even think of wicked problems in those terms. That said, the recent Paris agreements on climate change do show that we can cooperate on what may be the ultimate wicked problem of our time and that, to succeed, such steps have to serve as building blocks for even more effectively and wide ranging cooperation down the line.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.