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Wicked Problems

Similarity of Concepts

The paper, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning has outlined various aspects that bear similarities with the current situation that we are living in. To begin with, the paper points out the fact that the confrontation methods of social policy would be futile in trying to solve issues. The reasons for this assertion were based on the observed mutation of the problems facing the world during the 1970s. Indeed, scientific solution of the problems had failed a great deal and was only effective in the solution of tame problems. The continued application of science and research in the dissection of social problems was no better than a waste of precious time. Part of the reasons for this failure stemmed from the challenges of describing policy problems in a definitive manner leading to gaps in the process. In addition, the absence of undisputable public good in the pluralistic society contributed to the ineffectiveness of the solutions. Other factors including the inapplicability of policies to respond to the social problems as well as the lack of definitive and objective solutions sustained this ineffectiveness. Ultimately, all these factors combined to enhance the mutation of policy problems in the society.

In their research, Rittel & Webber (1973) identified the presence of wicked problems in society that could no longer be solved through traditional methods. The nature of these problems required a shift in social policy to guarantee any chances of success in problem solving. The characteristics of these problems dictated that the strategies in use would only be futile in their attempts to solve the problems. How the world is structured contributed to these problems and science had no chance of solving problems that were beyond the concepts of science. The pluralistic nature of the society further fueled the ineffectiveness of the strategies that were in use during the time. Today, the world faces similar problems as identified in the initial paper. Across the globe, problems are emerging with similar characteristics to those of wicked problems (Head, 2008). Problems such as famine, death, inequality and political instability are on the rise and continue to make daily headlines. The mitigation and prevention of these problems cannot be based on traditional methods of social policy. The concepts addressed in the paper, about forty years ago has relevant implications in the world today. In fact, most of the issues raised in the paper have similarities with the ones facing the current modern world.

The diagnostic approach that the paper assumes makes it ideal in today’s problem riddled society. The paper draws evidence of the failure of problem solution from the many protests that were taking place in the world. The protests were fueled by lack of solutions to most problems that the people had in those days.  Today, similar events are taking precedence as the people highly disagree with the leadership and governance accorded by world governments. Every day, critics of the government make headlines in an attempt to influence social policy. While the events captured in the paper are similar to the ones happening today, it is the relatedness of the affected sectors that is most surprising. The most notable complainants of yester years ranged from union workers, educators, policemen and even house helps. The constitution of this list is most likely due to the nature of abuse that these groups of people faced from the governments. Today, similar groups are in disapproval of the nature of problem solving adopted by their governments (Head & Alford, 2015). For instance, it is very common to come across strikes among the health workers. Most of the reasons that make them strike tend to be similar at all times. Further, most parents are of the opinion that the current education system is not of much value to the children. Perhaps the reasons for this development emanates from the failure of education to guarantee people success in their life. However modified these issues may appear, they resonate with the initial issues that were addressed in the Rittle’s paper.

Still, the paper is most relevant in the nature of protests being witnessed across the globe ranging from courtrooms to the streets. Every now and then, people mill around in groups in disapproval of the solution given to the problems of the society. Indeed, the protests are largely in opposition of the diagnosis of the problems affecting the citizens as well as ineffective governmental problems. World leaders have fallen as a result of their approaches to different issues affecting their people with most recent examples including the revolutions in the Arab countries. The heavy handedness application of solutions affecting the people is facing increasing challenge from the people meant to benefit from these programs. While the issues being objected are unique and distinct, so are the wicked problems as discussed in the paper. One of the most prevalent issues is the problem of equity in distribution of national and international resources (Roberts, 2000). Such was the state in the world when the paper was being written yet it still dominates the list of world problems. There is an emphasis on equity in the nomination of officials with minority groups insisting on their representation. This development is against the prior insistence on efficiency where considerations of equity were rarely applied in appointments. Eventually, the issues raised in the paper forty years ago continue to manifest their presence I today’s modern world.


Examples of Wicked Problems in the Modern World

Climate Change

One of the common wicked problems in today’s world has to be the climate change phenomena. The first pointer to this fact is based on the definition of wicked problems as those problems that lack straightforward responses of planning. Indeed, no amount of planning can guarantee the exoneration of the problem of climate change. The solution of the problem therefore requires the combined input of the world through a change in the mindset of the entire population. In essence, climate change over qualifies as a wicked problem and has been cited as a ‘super wicked problem’ in various channels (Weber & Khademian, 2008). The problem is a source of concern for a majority of the population posing increased threat to the world. Still, climate change matches all the characteristics of wicked problems and is one of the major issues dominating the world agendas. In addition to the complexity of the problem, the fact that time is running out makes it quite interesting as no viable solution has been advanced yet.  Further, the problem draws solutions from the same people that contribute to its advancement thus making it a looming tragedy. The consequences of climate change are far-reaching and do not discriminate between people in their manifestation. Combined, these features make climate change a unique and pressing wicked problem as its solution is not only necessary but urgent. The current policies have failed in the solution as they largely concentrate on the immediate problems with no anticipation of future tragedies resulting from the problem.



Another wicked problem is strategy and its application in organizational planning. Today, most of the organizations have shifted to more sophisticated methods of planning from the traditional top-down method. The current method is more inclined towards the needs of the customer thus allowing companies to benefit from better performance. That notwithstanding, it still poses numerous challenges and qualifies as a wicked problem. The ineffectiveness of current challenges comes from the ignorance on the part of the management of different companies. In this regard, most companies do not realize the need for improved planning and strategic planning as per the demands of the ever-changing markets (Weber & Khademian, 2008). Thus, the planning techniques of most organizations do not result in a generation of fresh ideas and the successful implementation. The nature of the strategic constraints facing the organizational world today makes it a wicked problem.

The evidence of strategy issues in the corporate world does not merely make them wicked problems. Rather, the wicked problems are only existent due to the failure of traditional processes to anticipate and solve the problems. The fact that the problems of strategies poses innumerable causes and has no right answer makes it a wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Indeed, the problem of strategy matches all the key characteristics of wicked problems including difficulties in description that are prevalent among other wicked problems such as degradation. In addition, some of the solutions proposed in solving the problem of strategy may also increase the problem further aside from failing to solve the problem. In addition, most of the companies facing modern problems in strategy are abnormally slow in detecting thus hindering the process of problem solving. Lastly, the solution of the wicked problem requires the combined change in mindset of a large group of people thus making its solution even harder. Ideally, these characteristics point to the evidence of strategy as a wicked problem.





Poverty has continued to manifest itself over different generations. In fact, poverty is very interesting as it has existed for many centuries with no amicable solutions. Policies advanced by various stakeholders have not succeeded in the permanent solution of the problem. Most of the solutions advanced over the years have focused on short term responses thus failing in their attempts to make considerable influence (Roberts, 2000). The problem of poverty qualifies through similarities with other wicked problems regarding its characteristics. For one, the problem cannot be defined universally and is discrete in occurrence across the world. In this way, the problem of poverty, although similar, is not solely the same in different geographical regions. Therefore, the poverty witnessed in Somali for instance, cannot be solved in similar fashion to the one witnessed in Brazil.

The problem of poverty matches all the characteristics of wicked problems requiring the combined effort of different stakeholders in identifying solutions. The solutions advanced in solving poverty have not been successful in weeding it out as it continues to occur from time to time. The absence of a clear methodology to be applied in the solution of the problem further justifies the claims laid in this paper. Different approaches have been applied in an attempt to rid the world of the problem with minimal success stories. In addition, the interconnectedness of the problem with other problems makes it hard to solve as is characteristic of other wicked problems. The problem of poverty results into other social problems such as hunger, sanitation and lack of education. This interconnectedness means that the solution of the problem cannot be conducted in isolation but must include the solution of the other problems as well.


Solution to the Wicked Problems

The solution to wicked problems is next to impossible owing to the mutative nature of the problems. However, some of these problems can be tamed when the right policy procedures are applied. Indeed, policy measures have attained considerable success in trying to tame most of the wicked problems of the world. Success in the solution given to the problem of war provides motivation for similar approaches in solving current wicked problems. Solutions to these problems require extensive involvement of large groups of populations (Weber & Khademian, 2008). The complexity of these solutions thus renders it very hard to implement and is dependent on the overall goodwill of the relevant stakeholders. The world should for once come together to provide solutions to the current problems of climate change and poverty. It is only through combined effort that solutions to these problems can be achieved. The way that policies are formulated in different governments has made it difficult to deal with wicked problems. Heineman et al. (2001) assert that policy makers in industrialized democracies tend to face division and conflict in their electorates. There is a concept of individualism among voters who come with the notion of “what have you done for me lately” (Heineman et al., 2001). This creates a dilemma among the policy makers between upholding traditional values of policy implementation and loyalty. Since the policy makers want to appease the electorates, and get re-elected, they are forced to implement policies that are short-term focused on various issues. Such attributes make it difficult to for development of lasting solutions to some problems hence making them wicked problems in the long-run.

It is clear that the world has no immediate solution to the wicked problems of the modern world. However, a collaborative approach would be enough in providing the requisite solutions to at least most of the problems that currently clog the universe. However, these approaches cannot solve the problems when applied in the absence of other strategies. In essence, the nature of the current world means that collaboration is hardly achievable owing to the different stakes that the counties have in the issues. One of the most effective strategy would be the use of authoritative bodies in coming up with solutions. For instance, the constitution of world bodies such the UN and World Bank provide an important avenue in addressing the most pressing problems. The basis for these approaches rests in the ability of small groups to come to consensus and can be used as representatives of the different populations. The constitution of such bodies should be done in line with the required expertise and knowledge thus ensuring that wicked problems attract the attention required (Head & Alford, 2015). The decisions reached by the selected group of stakeholders are binding and countries are forced to abide by the legislative measures reached. An example of this scenario is the ratification of major decisions made during annual meetings of the world governing bodies. Particularly, the problem of climate change can be solved, or at least tamed, through such approaches geared towards reduction of the causative agents among individual countries.

In addition to the authoritative strategy, the world can also adopt the competitive strategy of desired outcomes. In this model, countries in the world compete in attaining a desired outcome to either acquire power or influence world decisions.  The solution of the problem of poverty may be addressed through such an approach where countries with the least poverty indices gain influence in the world stage. Still, the strategy can be used in solving the problem of corporate strategy in planning by forcing countries to compete in the implementation of adopted measures. However, these problems require collaborative strategies as they depend on the goodwill of the relevant stakeholders. The advantage of such an approach is the increased commitment among different stakeholders thus translating into higher efficiency levels.



Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2015). Wicked Problems Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711-739.

Heineman, R.A., Bluhm, W.T., Peterson, S.A., & Kearny, E.N. (2001). The World of the Policy    Analyst. 3rd ed. New York: Chatham House Publishers, Seven Bridges Press, LLC.

Head, B. W. (2008). Wicked problems in public policy. Public Policy, 3(2), 101.

Roberts, N. (2000). Wicked problems and network approaches to resolution. International public management review, 1(1), 1-19.

Pal, L.A. (2013). Beyond Policy Analysis: Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times. 5th Ed. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Nelson.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Weber, E. P., & Khademian, A. M. (2008). Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network settings. Public administration review, 68(2), 334-349.


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