Tame and Wicked Problems

Okay, so we’re stepping into methodology here a little bit. I had already read a little about tame and wicked problems before, but never did the output portion of it, so a lot was lost. I did a little research now for the courses I’m taking (which either directly or indirectly touch on this theme, since environmental problems generally involve multiple sides and problems), but I haven’t done the proper, thorough academic work, which I’ll postpone for a bit still. So here are my first impressions on tame and wicked problems.

From what I’ve found, tame problems are problems we could consider exact: they have a beginning, middle and end. Once you define the problem, there are a set of tools you would use to arrive at a solution, and then the problem would be done with. I likened this to exact sciences versus human and social sciences for the sake of comprehension.

Wicked problems, on the other hand, are the really complex ones you don’t really have a formula for solving. They involve multiple elements that affect each other and other elements as you move them. This concept was elaborated in a treatise by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973. Below are the 10 characteristics the authors attributed to wicked problems on this treatise.

10 characteristics of wicked problems

  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 better or worse.
  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 social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Source: Rittel, H.; Webber, M. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070930021510/http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf

Still elaborating on wicked problems, in 2000 professor Nancy Roberts described three strategies to handle them:

3 strategies to handle wicked problems

  1. Authoritative: this strategy rests upon the basis of the fewer, the better. It means that to tackle wicked problems, few people should be involved in creating solutions in order to minimize the complexity of the problem. The downside of this approach is obvious: not every side of the story is heard and taken into account.
  2. Competitive: this strategy intends to fine-tune the best solutions by pitting opposing sides against each other, extracting the best out of each “side”. The downside of this approach is that this often creates a confrontational environment that is not conducive to sharing and consensus.
  3. Collaborative: this strategy is the more democratic of the three, engaging all stakeholders involved in a given situation. All parties have a voice and a common decision is made. The downside of this approach is that it may take a long time to find solutions and actions might be delayed.

Source: Roberts, N. Wicked problems and network approaches to resolution. International Public Management Review, Vol.1, Issue 1, 2000. Available at: http://journals.sfu.ca/ipmr/index.php/ipmr/article/download/175/175

So, in short, I guess tame problems are the ones you can solve, and wicked problems are the ones you can remedy but not completely solve. I think it’s very apparent that wicked problems are the kind of problems you are met with when handling environmental matters, so it’s indeed relevant that this is studied when going deeper into environmental management.


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