“Wicked problems”

And how to approach them with Design Thinking

Thinkers Co Blog Wicked problems

Have you ever been facing a problem that …

… involves many stakeholders with different approaches and priorities?

… implies other problems that are even more tangled and complicated?

… is difficult to solve, because it changes constantly?

… you have no background or that the information is incomplete and ambiguous?

… does not give any indication of any possible correct answer?

If you are facing any similar situations, we have good news for you… at Thinkers Co. we know what is happening and how you can confront this challenge more effectively.

We present to you the concept of “wicked problem”, which was first conceived in 1973 by Horst WJ Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, as problems that are difficult to describe and seem impossible to solve. These are usually related to social, political, environmental problems such as inequality, poverty, sustainability, education, among others.

These complex problems have 10 main characteristics:

1. There is no single and definitive formula to address a wicked problem.
2. Not having certainty on the limitation’s problem, makes it difficult to determine an adequate and defined solution.

3. The solution can only be good/ bad and not true/ false. As it is not possible to idealize the outcome of the problem, the solutions fail to solve the problem but it can improve/ worsen the situation.

4. There is no way to obtain and execute a scientific test on the solution to a complex problem.

5. There is no opportunity to learn in practice because every struggle to solve the problem has irreversible consequences. That is why every trial counts significantly and has “one-shot operation”.

6. It is not possible to create an innumerable list of potential solutions, it may even seem difficult to find at least one solution to the problem.

7. Each problem is unique. Although it seems similar to another, there will always be properties or characteristics that will differentiate from others.

8. Each wicked problem can be considered a symptom or cause of another one.

9. There is always more than one way to explain a wicked problem because it depends precisely on the point of view of each person.

10. There is a lot of responsibility in the people involved in the design of the strategy to solve a wicked problem.

problemas complejos

Now you will ask yourself… what can I do to be able to solve a wicked problem in the best possible way?

As you may have noticed, due to the nature of these problems, it is required an unusual strategy to deal with this type of problem In 1992, designer Richard Buchanan identified that the Design Thinking methodology could be very useful for addressing wicked problems, because of the following principles of Design Thinking:


    • Teamwork:
      It involves the participation of all interested stakeholders to communicate the different opinions among themselves, to be able to determine a shared understanding of the problem, and promote a collective commitment. Also, by obtaining a variety of different opinions and ideas, it opens the possibility of having innovative perspectives and solutions. In this way, group thinking and collective and creative intelligence are strengthened.
    • Consumer centric:
      The principal potential of the methodology is that it can solve the real problems of real people. For this, the starting point is to know deeply the problem, needs, values, desires, experiences, contextsfrom the eyes of the user or client. Based on this information, it could be proposed more real solutions for the “wicked problem”. One of the keys to this is to have
      empathy; a lot of empathy.
    • Practical approach:
      The iterative process involved in this methodology is very useful when redefining poorly formulated or unknown problems because it focuses on a deep investigation of the person involved. In the same way, it allows to carry out innovative pilot programs and / or prototype tests to know errors and obtain feedback on the proposed solution, and thus be able to correct them before their implementation. This translates into 3 cyclic steps: validate the solution, collect lessons and continue redesigning the solution.
    • Visual and flexible material support:
      Working with a visual system that involves the use of diagrams, drawings, post-its, among others, facilitates the understanding of the problem, as it helps to disaggregate it in all its parts. Also, working with dynamic or movable material makes its iteration easier. Finally, this type of visual material promotes the synthesis of information.

Would you like to implement Design Thinking in your “wicked problem”?
Tell us what it is about. We are sure that together, we can face it.

Published at 28/10/2019

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