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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > W, X, Y, Z > Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems 

Extremely complicated policy problems that are very difficult to define and generally impossible to address through a linear policy response.


The term "wicked problem" was coined by Rittel and Weber in an influential 1973 essay. There is no straightforward, definitive definition of a Wicked Problem. The following paragraphs, drawn from Katrin Becker's essay on Wicked Problems in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology provide useful information on the defining characteristics of wicked problems:

Problems rarely fall neatly into nice, clean categories, but Rittel and Webber (DeGrace & Stahl, 1990) distinguish two ends of a continuum: ‘wicked problems’ exist at one end, and those they refer to as ‘tame’ at the other. Now, ‘tame’ problems are not necessarily easy. Instead, what distinguishes them from the wicked kind is that a tame problem tends to be well understood; it can be solved using sequential processes (like those typically shown in flowchart style visualizations); it begins with an unambiguous problem statement, and, finally, ends with a correct (read: verifiable) solution. Many forms of classical training, especially those involving physical skills, can be considered tame, even though it would be naive to label them easy. Often attempts are made to address wicked problems by recasting them as tame ones. “By treating a wicked problem as a tame problem, energy and resources are misdirected, resulting in solutions that not are only ineffective, but can actually create more difficulty” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2003).

The following list outlines the ten criteria identified as being associated with Wicked Problems as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973).

Ten Main Criteria for Wicked Problems

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

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3. Solutions are not true/false but good/bad.

4. There is no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

5. Each solution is a one shot operation.

6. Wicked problems do not have enumerable (exhaustively describable) solutions.

7. Each problem is unique.

8. Each problem is a symptom of another problem.

9. There are a number of different stakeholders interested in how it is solved.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. In other words there is a (perhaps) unreasonable expectation that the designers will produce a suitable and sound solution in the first attempt.


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School of Public Policy and Governance