Re: Researching "Wicked Problems" LO2413 - Citation & Comment

Tue, 15 Aug 1995 07:37:47 -0400 (EDT)

Replying to LO2406 --

Nelson's ten-point description of "wicked problems" reflects a certain
non-cognitively-oriented point of view, which is often encountered these
days: that "problems" exist external to the individual.

Situations exist external to or inclusive of the individual. Problems,
as typically conceived, are descriptions that an individual produces to
reflect some aspects of a situation that the individual sees as
problematic. From this perspective, a wicked problem is simply a problem
which, to the individual, seems intractable. That is all that is needed
to say what one is.

If one insists in going further with the concept of wicked problem, a
fruitful scheme is to recognize that the wicked problem involves
"complexity" which again reflects the inability of the human being to
comprehend comprehensively beyond a certain scale. The four indexes I
have defined allow quantification of complexity, not in the sense of the
former National Bureau of Standards, but rather as a blunt instrument for
detecting what is and is not "complex."

Many ordinary problems have properties that Nelson describes. Few
"problems" in the sense of Nelson or Rittel's meaning of "problem" can be
exhaustively formulated, but that is a restatement of what it means for a
situation to be complex.

It is well known to mathematicians that there exist very well formulated
problems that can be shown to be unsolvable, even where very sharp
definition is available. Nelson's second descriptor is basically empty.

To say that there is no stopping rule is almost empty because a stopping
rule is always arbitrary, and can arbitrarily be formulated. In my
scheme the stopping rule is to stop when all information available to the
relevant crowd has been extractedc, but even then if new information
occurs later, to append it. This stopping rule is perfectly workable and
applies to the situation, but not to the problem, which is different to
everyone in the crowd.

To say there is no true or false is false. To say that there may be some
non-true, non-false may be true, but the no true or false is just another
empty formula, a way of saying nothing, and without any evidence.

In Interactive Management, operations are well-defined, and many
situations previously thought to involve wicked problems are no longer
seen as such. (Empirical evidence, coming out one's ears.)

Many explanations for the same problem is cognitively dissonant. The
not-said undermines the said, to quote Foucault. From whence emanate the
many explanations? If from one person, we have a poly=schizophrenic; if
from many there is no such thing as the same problem.

Again, is every problem a symptom of another problem? In whose mind?
Is the total set finite or infinite, and is the discussion about every
wicked problem being a symptom of another wicked problem, or does this
enigmatic phrase refer to a set of problems encompassed by a single
wicked problem?

There is never an ultimate test for anything.

A one-shot solution is wonderful; but probably what is meant here is a
"one-shot attempt to achieve a solution". How do you know that a
solution is possible? We like to talk about "options profiles" that
reflect an alternative.

To say that every problem is essentially unique, we can paraphrase and
say that every individual is unique, and since a problem is a concept
created in an individual mind, there is no reason to doubt that every
problem is essentially unique, but of course it would be enlightening to
see the "immediate or ultimate test" that verifies the truth of the


Anytime you see anything said about problems that does not reflect human
cognitive apparatus, you can be sure that the formulation is a "tekkie"
formulation. In these instances, it is always refreshing to see the
conceptual opposite: i.e., a "touchy-feely" formulation that ignores the
availability of assisting technologies, and relies on an "intervenor" to
do TO the individual by doing FOR the individual.