The term ‘wicked problem’ was originally proposed by two American urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, in the 1970s. The term has since been applied to a whole host of social, economic and political problems that cannot be successfully navigated with traditional linear, analytical approaches.
Here are some of the common strategies employed for taming wicked problems, as observed by Conklin -
- Lock down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the problem. Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s success.
- Cast the problem as ‘just like’ a previous problem that has been solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates or messes up the picture.
- Give up on trying to find a good solution. Just follow orders, do your job and try not to get in trouble.
- Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on selecting from among them. A specific way to do this is to frame the problem in ‘either/or’ terms, such as ‘Should we attack Iraq OR let the terrorists take over the world?’
All of this leads to the following question: Are Aid Agencies Problem Solvers or Problem Tamers?