Sunday, 30 June 2013

Wicked Problems and Problem Solving

I attended a learning and teaching forum back in April on activity-based learning. Sarah Wilson-Medhurst from Coventry University talked about the concept of 'wicked' problems and the competencies required to solve them. 'Wicked' problems are the types of problems that occur in the real world.

Conklin (2005) defines wicked problems as:

1) You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

2) Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3) Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

4) Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

5) Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one-shot operation'

6) Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

This is quite a contrast to the types of problems traditionally used in education. In education, we tend to focus on problems with known solutions. This is almost expected so we can prepare sample solutions. The problem is that students get the idea when we propose an assessment that what they need to do is discover the correct answer or at least the answer that the lecturer or assessor expects.

Is it possible that some of our politicians are like our students. That is they haven't got past the idea of known solutions or there being a correct answer. It would certainly explain why they claim there is no alternative to their policies. However, it isn't simply the politicians who think this way. The result is advisers who push politicians down blind alleys and the public who vote in politicians who claim to have “the solution”.

The idea is that a wicked problem has the property that they are not understood until after formulation of a solution (Conklin 2005).. It is the process of solving the problem that leads to a clearer understanding of the problem. I wonder though how the perception of the problem, that the person trying to solve the problem has, influences the solution and the understanding. Again, thinking in terms of politicians dealing with economic issues, I can see that their understanding of the problem both feeds the type of solution that they are looking at and their longer term understanding of the problem.

If we are open to the idea that wicked problems are not understood until solved then we should also expect that in the problem solving process, we are revising our understanding and our perception of the possible outcomes. Being open to changing perceptions has to be the core to being able to come to a deeper understanding of the problem and to developing a series solution along a path of appropriate solutions to the problem. Remember there is no stopping rule.

The concept of wicked problems also contradicts the problem solving process that we teach. We assume that it is possible to understand the problem before attempting to create a solution. However, although we may not fully understand a problem at the start, this doesn't mean that we do not understand anything about the problem. Solutions must build from the current knowns (my view) but we need to be open to a changing understanding and maybe a rewriting of our solutions.

It is argued that wicked problems need multidisciplinary teams to solve and that the competencies required are difficult to measure (Knight & Page 2007). These competencies include creativity, teamwork and collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, working across subject boundaries, etc. It is argued that in order to find a solution to wicked problems, we need to be able to be confident in the solution. However, since we are growing our understanding of the problem along with the solution, then maybe we should rephrase that to being confident about our current solution or the path toward the current solution.


Conklin, J (2005) Wicked problems & Social complexity. In: Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Wiley.

Knight, P & Page, A (2007) The assessment of 'wicked' competences. Report to the practice-based professional learning centre.


swemorph said...

Re: “Wicked Problems”, we thought that you might like to know about this:

“Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

You can see a description at Springer here:


Tom Ritchey

Errol and Marilyn Thompson said...

The book looks interesting. I have a list of materials to catch up on but my reading rate is quite slow at the moment with a high number of other responsibilities.

I would be interested to know what you think of my views in relation to your own work.