Wicked Problem

By Deane Barker

A problem that is very hard to solve, and might not have a solution because the requirements keep changing, and it’s a zero-sum game where if someone wins, someone else loses.

The title comes from a guest editorial by C. West Churchman in a 1967 issue of Management Science. He entitled the editorial Wicked Problems and said:

[…] the term “wicked problem” refer to that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing. The adjective “wicked” is supposed to describe the mischievous and even evil quality of these problems, where proposed “solutions” often turn out to be worse than the symptoms.

He attributed the phrase to Horst Rittel who was a design professor at the University of California.

In this case, “wicked” is used to anthropomorphize a problem that seems to be actively avoiding a solution.

Example: poverty, the environment, morality in politics, etc. These problems have no clean end. They’re very hard to “solve” because different people have different opinions of what the actual problem is, how bad it is, what the ramifications of a solution are, and many of the people involved have conflicts of interest that discourage them from viewing the problems objectively.

Why I Looked It Up

It just popped into my head one day while I was working out. It’s one of those words that I knew the definition of, but I wasn’t sure if that definition was formal, or where it came from.

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