Complex or 'Wicked Issues'

Complex problems are typically defined as those that include the ability to approach them from multiple, sometimes competing, perspectives and which may have multiple possible solutions.
Wicked issues can be defined as problems in which there is little or no…
  • Agreement on the definition of the problem (owing to multiple values, perception, and perspectives)
  • Clear solutions to the problem owing to the wide array of possible solutions and trade-offs associated with each
  • Easily identified causes or authority due to the problem having multiple potential causes, jurisdictions, stakeholders and regulator or implications
Source: (Rittel & Webber 1973)

Additionally, the solution to such problems may result in unintended consequences that require re-solution of the new problem. Since 1968, this type of problem has also been referred to as ‘wicked problems’ (REF). The term ‘wicked problem’ is primarily attributed to an article by Rittel and Webber in 1973 about problems in planning. While some would say wickedness simply means complex, Conklin suggests that Rittel and Webber: ‘distinguished a new domain of problem type, as opposed to, say, a new way of solving complex problems. Problem wickedness is not about a higher degree of complexity, it is about a fundamentally different kind of challenge to the design process, one that makes solution secondary and problem understanding central.’ (Conklin et al, 2007).

Conklin (2007) goes on to state that Rittel and Webber’s (1973) conceptualization of problems is one that cannot be arrived at using the traditional linear modes of problem solving and, in particular, arrived at in a way of re-incorporating the human dimension of problems back into problem solving approaches. Previously, traditions of rationalist problem solving had sought to remove the social or human from problems and create a vacuum within which problem-solving occurred. A similar rationalization is found in traditional scientific, positivist approaches to research, development and extensionii.

Compounding these challenges is that fact that in almost all cases the conditions and constraints affecting the problem and its possible solutions change over time, sometimes often dramatically – changing both the problem and the range of options designed to address it.

iEffective Community Engagement: Workbook and Tools, Version 2, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Department of Primary Industries.

ii Community Engagement Scoping Paper, Thompson, Lyndal 2014