What’s All This About A Wicked Problem?

I often hear that community collaboration or collaborative conservation involve wicked problems. Ever wonder what that really means?

In the Northeastern US, wicked is used as a modifier in place of “really” or “very.” You can have wicked good beer that is truly tasty - or see a wicked bad movie that is truly awful. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The phrase “wicked problem” originated in the 1960’s to describe a particular type of problem with particular characteristics. Today, an internet search will suggest a wicked problem is impossible to solve. However, that misses an important point: a wicked problem isn’t a technical problem that is tractable or solvable in a decisive sense. A wicked problem requires ongoing management. For a wicked problem, the very idea of a solution is different.

The reasoning needed to deal with a wicked problem is richer, and more robust, than for a technical problem, where an engineer, scientist, or technical expert, can define a problem to solve. They can deconstruct it into separate parts with clear objectives - sometimes even assign teams to different pieces – and then come up with a solution and move on.

However, a wicked problem isn’t so simple.

In fact, approaching a wicked problem as though it were tame and technical is a mistake that often leads to new and more challenging problems that emerge from the mismatch between the problem and the approach.

So, what are we talking about? A wicked problem, at its core, is defined by disagreements about:

  • the problem’s nature or type,
  • the goals for addressing it,
  • how to reach those goals,
  • and how to tell when its solved.

And those disagreements build on each other, often from the very beginning - when first explaining or trying to understand the problem. The wickedness of a wicked problem is not about mistakes or misunderstanding; its more about values, priorities, or how different people see the world.

There are a number of distinguishing and interrelated characteristics of a wicked problem, according to the two scholars who documented their thoughts about this.* We’ve mentioned several already:

  • A problem is wicked if it has no definitive formulation, so smart people define it differently;
  • A wicked problem has no stopping rule, so it’s hard to gauge success;
  • It has no best right or wrong solution, only ones that are subjectively good or bad;
  • It has no clear test of solution, so decisions simultaneously produce success and failure, which also means there is little sound basis to establish statistical, scientific probabilities;
  • It is dynamic and unique in meaningful ways, so every attempted solution is also unique in meaningful ways and leads to an equally unique outcome;
  • It is a symptom of other problems and a cause of still others, all with unclear boundaries;
  • And last, it has unclear decision makers because different individuals or groups can choose to respond to the problem independently, or even in opposing ways for conflicting reasons.

These characteristics explain why we see wicked problems as tricky like a leprechaun and slippery like a wily coyote, the trickster here in the southwest.

For me, the most important lesson about wicked problems is that community collaboration and collaborative conservation are the most appropriate ways to address them, and manage them for the long-run. Specifically, it isn’t just that we most often face wicked problems; it’s that our skills and approaches are most suitable for dealing with and managing that tricky type of problem.  

Treating a wicked problem like a tame or technical one ignores the wicked characteristics that a collaborative approach embraces. Collaborative approaches - when done well - bring different, diverse perspectives together to produce a shared understanding. This includes a shared sense of healthy skepticism. That shared understanding, combined with a bias towards action, can be the basis for ongoing learning - knowing that the problem will continue to evolve regardless.

Take note: collaborative conservation and community collaboration most often deal with wicked problems – perhaps because the non-linear, diverse approaches are exactly what’s called for to solve a wicked problem.



* Rittel, H. and M. Webber, 1973.  Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.  Policy Sciences.


- April 4, 2019

Peter Williams, PhD

PBW Consulting

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