Taming wicked problems: theory and practice; a practical lesson in how to tackle the multi-faceted problems in the workplace

Raymon R. Bruce

The Civilian Personnel Flight supports the 49th Fighter Wing of 117-A Stealth fighters at Holloman Air Force Base (AFB) in New Mexico. The staff had been struggling with the problem of managers wanting to reward their civilian employees’ good performance by upgrading an employee’s position rather than using the Air Force performance reward system in place. No matter how Civilian Personnel Flight staff tried to solve this problem, the worse it got for everyone. In May 2001, we conducted a workshop that used Horst Rittel’s work on wicked problems and a technique that identified the subset of problems involved. The workshop participants included the manager of the Civilian Personnel Flight, six unit staff, and two visiting staff from the Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph Air Force Base, in San Antonio, TX.

Wicked and Tame Problems

When a discontinuity gap between what we expect and what happens becomes wide enough to cause us concern, we come to believe that we have a problem.

This discontinuity is a gap in our knowledge and understanding of the actual situation. The problem’s solution lies in obtaining the missing knowledge and understanding. No matter how difficult a problem, if it can be solved by traditional rational problem-solving methods, it can be considered as a “tame problem.”

Tame problems are most often solved by using a rational problem-solving approach described by Herbert Simon in his A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice as:

* identify the problem;

* restructure the problem, design alternative solutions; and

* choose the best solution to implement.

Clearly, there are many versions of Simon’s rational approach to problem solving. No matter how complex and difficult a problem may be, as long as there is a body of knowledge available and expertise that can be applied to gain the requisite understanding of the problem, it is best solved with this rational scientific approach. These are still tame problems.

However, there are some problems, such as the pay equity and position classification problem among Civilian Personnel Flight staff and line military managers at Holloman AFB, that cannot be clearly identified. The many stakeholders are caught up in multiple, confusing issues, have different needs, and have conflicts with each other. Rittel has called these “wicked problems.”

Wicked Problems

Rittel and M. M. Webber originally proposed the concept of “wicked problems” when they saw that in solving some problems, the solution of one aspect of the problem often increased other more difficult aspects of the problem. Rittel and Webber suggested the following as some of the typical characteristics of a wicked problem:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

4. 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.

5. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions.

6. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. (1)

The difference between tame and wicked problems is not a definite line but rather a threshold. Rittel and Webber proposed these rules as a guide to help problem solvers determine if a problem is “wicked.”

Taming Rather Than Solving

The workshop’s approach to dealing with wicked problems is to tame the wicked problem rather than to solve it. Once the problem is tamed, it is more amenable to being solved with traditional decision-making and problem-solving methods. This approach uses two complementary problem-solving methods in order to tame wicked problems. Participants used Rittel’s method of restructuring wicked problems to explore and restructure the wicked problem’s context. Rittel’s “conversation components of issues, stakeholders’ positions, and arguments,” (2) provides the scaffolding to reconstruct the wicked problem’s context. The workshop used a discontinuity-gap analysis approach that was developed by Raymon Bruce to identify the subset of discontinuties among the stakeholders involved in the wicked problem’s context. Once identified, the discontinuity gaps found in the wicked context pointed to the subset of tame problems that were solvable by traditional rational problem-solving methods.

Taming Wicked Problems: A Method and Practice

The taming wicked problems workshop is conducted in five steps:

* Convene stakeholders to learn about tame and wicked problems.

* Participants discuss the parameters of the selected wicked problem.

* Use Rittel’s method to reconstruct the wicked context.

* Use discontinuity-gap analysis to identify the subset problems.

* Develop action options to solve the subset of tame problems.

These steps are informal activities that help the participants explore the various issues and develop an issue-based information system to support making their action plans.

Step 1. Convene Stakeholders to Learn About Tame Problems and Wicked Problems.

The Civilian Personnel Flight manager explained that he would be trying out a new approach to dealing with pay and classification. The climate of the workshop was open and each participant could interrupt, ask questions, and share opinions at any time. In addition, the nature of problem solving and definitions of wicked and tame problems were explained and discussed. The purpose of this step is mainly to set the stage for all the participants, and to discuss process questions.

Step 2. Participants Discuss the Parameters of a Selected Wicked Problem.

The workshop participants conducted an informal discussion of the difficulties they were having with the pay and classification process. The participants then formed into groups to meet separately to discuss and record their views of the parameters of the problematic situation. The groups were encouraged to avoid trying to identify the problem or seeking solutions. Their task at this time was to get a sense of the scope of the problem. The groups then reassembled together and presented their discussion of the parameters of the wicked problem to the group as a whole:

* Persuasion: “Our inability to persuade line management supervisors to accept classification decisions and/or decisions which are beyond our control.”

* Supervisors promise upgrades before we have done a classification study.

* Supervisors often think that they understand classification standards best and that we are being difficult when our findings do not support their view. It is not clear who has the ultimate decision here.

* Lack of management support in backing up controversial classification decisions.

* Lack of recognition of the value of our contribution to the fighter wing.

Step 3. Use Rittel’s Method to Reconstruct the Wicked Problem Context.

Rittel proposed that solutions to wicked problems could only emerge after restructuring them through extended dialogue among the stakeholders involved in the wicked problem. Rittel believed that wicked problems require a designer’s issue-resolution approach rather than an engineer’s problem-solving approach. Solutions to Rittel’s wicked problems emerge after extended dialogue among the wicked problem’s participants (stakeholders). This dialogue restructures the wicked problem into what Rittel called conversation components:

* Issues: What is at stake here? What values are being contested?

* Positions: What are the stakeholders’ positions on the issues?

* Arguments: What are the arguments (and counter-arguments) for the positions?

Rittel’s idea is that the discussion of these “conversation components” would restructure the problem toward a consensus around the issues of the wicked problem. He suggests that most of the hard work is done by the time the “wicked” problem has been restructured into a usable form for traditional problem-solving methods. Restructuring the wicked context provides half the solution. Rittel and colleagues developed their Issue-Based Information System (IBIS).

A computer-based group decision support system tool, QuestMap,[TM] was developed from Jeffery Conklin’s research and developed at Corporate Memory Systems in Austin. Conklin pointed out one of the greatest drawbacks of Rittel’s IBIS, (3) was that it is easy for an IBIS discussion to overwhelm any manual system for keeping track of the issues and their logical relationships of Rittel’s conversational components of issues, stakeholder positions, and arguments.

This workshop step had the participants discuss Rittel’s conversational components of stakeholders, issues, and arguments. To restructure a wicked problem, the three groups identified the stakeholders, issues, and arguments involved in the wicked problem of equity pay and classification at Holloman AFB. After the three groups compiled their lists, each list was presented to the whole group for discussion. The examples of the results are listed below.

Clearly, these three lists are abstractions of the general discussions that resulted from the subgroups’ presentations. What is not evident is the group’s emerging acceptance and understanding of the dynamics of their wicked situation.

Are Wicked Problems Really Problems?

Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan note that Herbert Simon questioned Rittel’s categorizing some problems as wicked. Simon claimed that there could be no such distinction, there are only problems. (4) In accommodating Simon’s view, it might be the case that the wicked problem itself is not wicked; only its context. A wicked problem could be a bunch of interrelated problems with many common stakeholders that have countervailing solutions to those problems. The problems and the stakeholders are ensnared together in the common context. The more one stakeholder tries to solve the problem the worse it gets because that solution itself causes many of the situation’s other subset problems to get even more troublesome and the wicked problem itself get more wicked.

If we could identify the wicked problem’s subset problems, the wicked problem would then be tamed. Then perhaps we could solve the subset problems separately and in some reasonable order However, the difficulty with this approach is that the wicked context tends to obscure or disguise many of the subset problems from our view.

Our original definition that a problem occurs when there is such a gap between what we expect and what happens that the gap causes us concern. If we could locate all of the gaps in the wicked situation, we could then work backward from the gaps to identify the subset problems involved. Since these discontinuity-gaps are gaps in knowledge and understanding among the stakeholders, Rittel’s restructured problem context was used to help us find out where these gaps most likely reside. Find a gap; find a problem. In this fashion, the wicked context’s subset of problems was identified. With this knowledge about the discontinuity gaps it became be easier to find ways to bridge the discontinuity gaps with the missing knowledge and expertise required for solving the subset problems.

Step 4: Use Discontinuity-Gap Analysis to Identify the Subset Problems.

The participants analyzed the wicked problem along three discontinuity-gap dimensions, place, level, and change developed by the authors. (5) These discontinuity-gap dimensions depict the nature of the knowledge and expertise discontinuity among the stakeholders’ positions, issues, and arguments described in the previous step. When stakeholders are from different places, are from different levels in a social hierarchy, or experience different effects from a common change, then there is a good chance that there can be a knowledge and expertise gap between these stakeholders’ positions. This discontinuity gap is a problem. However, it is a problem because by furnishing the missing knowledge and expertise the gap is bridged and the problem is solved.

For example, the place discontinuity-gap dimension refers to a discontinuity gap of knowledge and understanding that occurs between people from different regions, demographics, departments, realms, or other bounded aspects. For example, the gap between the military and civilians is an example of a place gap. It is people in one place not fully understanding or accepting the points-of-view of those in a different place. For example, the military and civilian personnel situations at Holloman AFB are overlapping but are not exactly the same.

The level or hierarchy discontinuity-gap dimension refers to the difference of focus or discontinuity gap between people within the same place but at different levels in the organization. For example, level discontinuity gaps are often hierarchical gaps between Holloman AFB employees and their supervisors.

The change discontinuity-gap dimension refers to the discontinuity gap that is a difference in experience regarding a change experienced by stakeholders in the situation. The improvement of an employee’s work performance may be valued differently by the employee’s supervisor, and differently again by the Civilian Personnel Flight when enforcing the Air Force pay and classification system.

Finding the Discontinuity Gaps

The facilitator-authors led the participants in identifying the discontinuity gaps through the three discontinuity-gap dimensions. In comparing the stakeholders’ position list to the arguments and issues lists that the participants developed in the previous step, the group was able to identify many potential discontinuity gaps due to differences of understanding and expertise among the stakeholders from different places, levels, and changes.

By comparing the stakeholder positions to the issues and arguments in the wicked problem context restructured in step three, the participants detected many discontinuity gaps along the three discontinuity-gap dimensions. For example, where employees and supervisors are identified as having different stakeholder positions in the reconstructed context, a level discontinuity gap existed between them showing a significant difference among them as to how improved performance should be recognized and rewarded. By annualizing discontinuity gaps among involved stakeholders’ issues and arguments it became possible to identity the subset problem. The logical solution alternatives called for the Civilian Personnel Flight staff to acquire or develop a formal training program for military managers on the different roles and use of performance reward system and the position classification (upgrade) system in the Air Force.

Step 5. Develop Action Options to Solve the Subset of Tame Problems.

The various problem gaps identified along the discontinuity-gap dimensions are, in effect, a model of the wicked problem situation. Once the problem subset is identified the wicked problem is essentially tamed. That is to say, the subset problems can be dealt with using the rational problem-solving methods of tame problems.

The civilian personnel staff held an off-site strategic planning session after the workshop and reviewed the viability of each of the options available to them. They addressed those options they considered to be the most realistic and having the best cost-benefit ratio. Specifically, the issue was addressed with the following action steps:

* Train Civilian Personnel Flight staff in communication techniques and salesmanship.

* Train Civilian Personnel Flight staff in assigning work and writing position descriptions.

* Train client managers and supervisors on the classification process and its legal requirements.

* Develop proactive program to gain and maintain client supervisors and top-level management support for position classification equity decisions.

Writing and presenting these action items as a final document transformed the participants’ view toward a positive outcome rather than the perceived negative issues of unacceptable classification decisions, aggressive and ill-trained (client) managers, and the lack of support from wing command and other commanders, managers, and supervisors.

The Wicked Problem Tamed

As we have seen, the individual discontinuity gaps in the problematic situation are not problem gaps in nature, rather they are problem gaps in the understanding between the people involved in a complex and problematic “wicked problem” situation. In order to assure the wicked problem situation remains tamed it is important to address the problematic situation in terms of tactical project actions that bridge single gaps with knowledge and dialogue that engenders understanding on the part of the people involved in the individual discontinuity gaps.

Finally, we can expect most of the singular discontinuity gaps to be bridged by various communication and training events that provide the missing knowledge and understanding to the various stakeholders. However, the wicked problem situation itself rarely will be solved, as such. Issues, stakeholder positions, and arguments are in constant flux. Nevertheless, we can expect the wicked situation to be resolved to the degree that the people involved in the situation have a common understanding why the situation “is the way it is.” From there they can begin to work out more useful arrangements together.

Table 1

1. Issues: (What is at stake?) What values are being constensted?

Integrity of classification Promotions (employees and

system and classifier. management supervisors.)

Employee’s pay and benefits. Workload.

Morale. Credibility.

Accountability of management Air Force-wide position

supervisors and classifiers. classification.

Integrity of classification Air Force and 49th

system and classifier. Fighter Wing mission.

Employee’s pay and benefits. Retention of employees.

Morale. Program equity.

Accountability of management Citizen’s tax dollars.

supervisors and classifiers.

2. Positions: (Who are the key stakeholders?) Who has taken positions on

the issues?

Civilian employees. Air Force Commands.

Air Force 49th Fighter Military line management

Wing Command. supervisors.

Citizens. Civilian Personnel Flight

(CPF) staff.

Civilian line management Civilian employees’

supervisors. families.

Civilian employees. Union.

Air Force 49th Fighter Air Force pilots

Wing Command. and support.

Citizens. Central personnel


Civilian line management Comptroller (budget,

supervisors. etc.).

3. Arguments: (Where is the Conflict?) What are the arguments for the


We (CPF) want to be seen as Classifier not always open to/

a help, not the enemy. aware of management

supervisor’s concerns.

Better understanding of People versus position.

mission needs.

Conflict of purpose: get Assignment of work: duplication

the job done versus pay or overlap between clas- and

sification equity rules. military/civilian supervision.

Supervisors want the grades When the classifiers do not

(classes) they have requested approve improper grade

even when our classification requests the management

studies cannot support supervisor and

the change. affected employee

often takes it personally

against the classifier.

Supervisors’ demands for grades Management wants to reward

often conflict with the employees by reclassifying

integrity and requirements (some the job (promotion-in-place)

of which may be obsolete) rather than use the proper (and

of the civilian position limited) recognition systems

classification (equity). for good performance.

When we (CPF) do a desk audit We (CPF) want to do a good

and classification people (professional) job, and be

think we are taking money recognized for it when we do.

away from their family and

livelihood. Maybe we are and

maybe that comes with the

territory. The issue for us

must be, “Equity, it’s our job.”


(1.) Kunz, Werner and Horst W. J. Rittel (1970). “Issues as elements of information systems.” In: Center for Planning and Development Research, Working Paper 131, University of California, Berkeley. Also see H. W. Rittel (1972). “Second generation design methods.” Interview in “The DMG 5th Anniversary Report: DMG Occasional Paper No. 1,” 5-10 reprinted in Cross N. (ed.) Developments in Design Methodology, 317-327 (1984). J. Wiley and Sons: Chichester.

(2.) Rittel, H. W.J. and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (4 Policy Sci.: 1973), p.155.

(3.) Conklin, E. Jeffery. The IBIS Manual; A Short Course in IBIS Methodology.

(4.) http://www.gdss.com/wp/IBIS.htm.

(5.) Margolin, Victor and Richard Buchanan, ed., The Ideas of Design, 2nd edition (MIT: 1996).

(6.) Bruce, Raymon R. “Gap Analysis Process As an Aid to Problem Solvers,” an unpublished paper, Ph.D. Capstone for Policy Analysis and Program Review, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, July 1, 1988.

Raymon R. Bruce is on the faculty of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is vice president of Horizons for Democracy, and the co-author of several books. Nathan P. Cote is the human resource director at Holloman Air Force Base. He is adjunct professor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Bureaucrat, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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