Wicked Problems in 2013

The book Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, which was the inspiration for more than a few posts at the end of last year, referred to ‘wicked problems’ as those that are not solvable by traditional methods and are difficult or impossible to solve at all because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.

Wicked problems are wicked in large part because the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems, sort of like when you squeeze one side of a balloon and it pops out on the other.

And, since I read that definition, and that particular label, I’ve been thinking about two things:

1. My oldest son hews very much to the first definition of ‘wicked’ in Webster, as morally very bad, or evil. Here it’s the second definition that applies: fierce or vicious. And the distinction is important, because our tendency, often, to rush to labeling the ‘other’ as ‘bad’ is counterproductive in our efforts to solve these problems that are perhaps best understood as more ‘mischievous’ than evil.

2. All of our problems are sort of wicked. I mean, for social workers and advocates, if a problem is solvable by traditional methods and we haven’t solved it yet…what are we doing? I guess there are those problems for which it is our failure to summon sufficient political will that explains our failure, sort of. But if you take something like poverty, which, on the one hand, is easy to solve–just give people enough money, then it becomes clear that poverty is still a wicked problem, in that solving it through that clearest route will also create other problems.

What Measuring the Networked Nonprofit suggests in passing, and what I have contemplated since I read the book last fall, is that, for wicked problems, our best chance to solve them will be to harness the collective energies and capacities of free agents who can be convinced to rally to the cause. After all, the solutions we’ve already thought of, by definition, won’t work here.

These problems are wicked.

Climate change, offender recidivism, obesity, unemployment

I think there’s something liberating, in a way, about calling these problems ‘wicked’. It makes it plain that it’s not necessarily that we’re not smart enough, or that we’re not trying hard enough. It may be just that these are fierce problems that will demand something more, something else, if we’re going to solve them without just chasing around other problems that pop out all over the place. It frees us up to dedicate ourselves, anew, to the creative tackling of the wicked problems whose solutions still elude us. And, maybe, to eradicating the pesky problems with simpler solutions that we should have gotten to by now.

So that we can make 2013 the ‘year of the wicked’, problem-wise.

Second Webster definition, of course.

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