Complex Problem Solving

Wicked Problem Solving with VPEC-T

Exploring the ten characteristics of Wicked Problems and how Systems Thinking Framework VPEC-T can be used to help tame them.

RITTEL AND WEBBER’S formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics. How can they be addressed using structured methods such as VPEC-T?

Lost in Translation – the origins of VPEC-T

10 Characteristics of Wicked Problems

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgement.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It’s possible to determine right away if a solution to an ordinary problem is working. But solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness.
  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. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same way. A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. However, those problems don’t have one root cause.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.

Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.

In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness – examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge management to business strategy. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wicked Problems and Systems Thinking Framework VPEC-T

VPEC-T, by Nigel Green and Carl Bate

Tackling Wicked Problems: Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination

Implications for Wicked Problem Solving

  1. To address the first characteristic of Wicked Problems, it is necessary to collect a wide range of views of the problem space. An Open Innovation, crowd-sourcing or think-tank based approach (which could be internal ideation, or a mixture of the aforementioned) has promise. In the ‘definition formulation stage’ there will be ‘many’ contradictions, agreement and disagreement between stakeholder groups, terminology problems and nuances. Facilitating and filtering outputs from this phase presents interesting challenges. VPEC-T has a place in this, particularly in dealing with the complexity of eclectic values.
  2. The second characteristic of Wicked Problems highlights the importance of solution hypotheses and a means by which to prototype representative solutions and measure their utility. An ability to prototype many solution hypotheses in parallel may be achieved with Open Innovation, particularly challenge driven Open Innovation where a competition model is used. Characteristic 5 implies that prototyping is not viable in the context of Wicked Problems. I think this is somewhat misleading. I agree that once commitment is made to a solution it is a ‘one shot’ operation with consequences, but populating a set of initial solution hypotheses and understanding the scope of the Wicked Problem (particularly where it is ‘interspersed’ with ‘traditional problems’) will help get the right definition of the problem and the right level of focus on its key facets.
  3. The third characteristic of Wicked Problems will again benefit from the application of Open Innovation and VPEC-T. Open Innovation in the sense of rapid development of solution hypotheses and a mechanism to source improvement ideas from a wide range of participants (including disruptive thinkers from other markets, industries or geographies). VPEC-T comes into play in the filtering process. Open Innovation is useful in the population of the funnel of candidate solutions. VPEC-T is a useful filter to select preferred options which fit best with the Values and Trust dimensions of the company, government or country attempting to solve the Wicked Problem. In certain Wicked Problems, the Values dimension will need to focus on ethics and cultural acceptability and the Policy dimension on relevant laws and restrictions.
  4. Wicked Problems will not be solved through application of design patterns. Characteristics 4 and 7 above rule this out. The generation of unexpected consequences in Characteristic 4 indicates potential for the application of Pattern Based Strategy (in terms of signal detection, and making sense of unanticipated events via correlation and causation analysis).
  5. Refer to implication 2.
  6. Characteristic 6 reinforces that Open Innovation has potential in terms of sourcing solution hypotheses and enriching these hypotheses with a range of opinion. As outlined in Implication 1, facilitation and filtering is important and VPEC-T has an important role to play.
  7. As stated in Implication 4, this rules out the application of design patterns, the solution to a Wicked Problem being unique.
  8. Characteristic 8 makes Wicked Problems particularly Wicked. A three pronged attack on this characteristic with Open Innovation, VPEC-T and Pattern Based Strategy has value. Open Innovation in the sense of collectively working on how Wicked Problems are entwined with other problems, VPEC-T in terms of filtering and facilitating analysis, and Pattern Based Strategy in terms of correlation and causation analysis.
  9. Characteristic 9 is a real sweet spot for VPEC-T, which excels at surfacing the Values and Trust dimensions of Wicked Problem Solving.
  10. VPEC-T (and other thinking frameworks) has an important role in dealing with Characteristic 10. The problem solver(s) eventually need to put their reputations on the line, and must therefore have explored the problem space methodically. Certainty and Wicked Problem solving do not go ‘hand in hand’, and systems and strategic thinking methods are useful in driving out as much uncertainty as may be considered reasonable in highly-complex environments.

Further Reading on Wicked Problem Solving

By Steve Nimmons

Steve is a Certified European Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an Electric Circle Patron of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a Liveryman and Freeman of London and serves on numerous industry panels. He is a member of Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Chartered Institute of Journalists.