Understanding Problems

As you have already been discussing this week, the problems we face, individually or collectively, can be so complex that knowing how to even start to address them can be challenging. In many cases there is no single correct way to even define and describe the problem.

Problems can have numerous causes, a variety of characteristics, can affect different people differently, and their consequences can range from the trivial to the extreme. Any single problem we face may involve lots of interacting issues, and the problem will rarely exist in isolation from other problems.

Despite this, we often find ourselves working on individual problems. Industries, governments and universities all divide themselves into different departments focusing on different issues, but the real world does not have such boundaries. The environment affects health, technology affects the economy, social policy affects the environment, culture affects technology and so on.

As you may have noticed from the problems discussed so far this week, one problem could involve multiple people, and the nature of the problem can look very different to each of them. Some of those involved may not even consider it to be a problem. If there isn’t much agreement on exactly what the problem is, it is unlikely that there will be an agreement on what a good solution might look like. This can make it difficult to come up with innovations to address the problem.

Despite the potentially daunting challenge of addressing these complex problems, history is full of individuals and groups that have innovated to produce solutions that make situations less problematic.

So where do you start?

When faced with a particular complex problem most of us feel the urge or pressure to take immediate action to develop and implement a solution. This sometimes is effective; however, more often than not it can lead to ineffective solutions that may create new problems and in some instance may even make the initial problem worse.

There are a lot of quotes by a lot of very smart people about problems. For example, the philosopher John Dewey (1938) said:

“A problem well put is half-solved”

The quote “the greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution” is frequently attributed to Bertrand Russell, and “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes trying to solve it” is often attributed to Einstein. While the likelihood is neither of these men actually said those words, the fact their names are associated with them nevertheless implies the wisdom many think they contain.

Different types of problems

It can be useful to differentiate between different types of problems. Over the course of this week we will look at some ways to make sense of difficult problem situations and describing a problem in such a way that we can begin to develop innovative ways to add value by making the situation better, and avoid unintended consequences.

One very common way to start differentiating between problems is thinking about them as ‘tame’ or ‘wicked’.

Tame and Wicked Problems

The suggestion that some problems could be considered as ‘tame’ and others as ‘wicked’ originates with two academics working in design and planning, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

Tame problems are those where everyone involved agrees on the gap between what exists and what should exist. There is agreement on what the problem is, what the solution looks like and it is largely clear how it will be achieved.

For example if you and your friend want a coffee, but you don’t currently have any, there are proven ways of resolving this problem (make or buy some coffee), and both you and your friend will know when it has been resolved (when you are drinking your coffee). Tame problems are not necessarily trivial problems, and they may even be complicated to solve, but they do have definitive solution and often known methods for achieving them. Constructing a new computer to an agreed specification may be difficult and require particular expertise, but it can be considered tame in that we know what outcome we want and there are proven methods to arrive there.

Wicked problems are very different to tame ones. They are wicked in the sense that they are tricky rather than evil or immoral. Rittel and Webber describe these problems as the type where we do not have a known method of developing a strategy and, furthermore, where there is no way of clearly knowing whether they have been solved. Deciding on the route of a new railway line, setting up a sustainable business or reducing societal inequality could be considered wicked problems.

Rittel and Webber outlined ten characteristics that make a problem wicked:

  • There is no definitive formulation of the problem (which means you couldn’t write the problem down in such a way that everyone involved would agree you had captured all the issues and every criteria of success)
  • There is no stopping rule (if there is no definitive formulation there is no definitive answer)
  • Solutions are good or bad, rather than true or false
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test for a solution
  • There is no opportunity for trial-and-error
  • There is no way of ensuring all potential solutions have been considered
  • Each one is essentially unique
  • They can be considered a symptom of another problem
  • They can be explained in a number of ways and the choice of explanation will determine the solution
  • The problem-solver has no right to be wrong

This final point – that the problem-solver has ‘no right to be wrong’ – differentiates wicked problems from those of scientific enquiry. A scientific experiment sets out to try and establish the truth, and so the person conducting the experiment accepts the potential to be refuted. It is through this process that science progresses. The scientist is not blamed for being wrong. Those tackling wicked problems, on the other hand, aim to make the situation better and may face consequences if their actions make the situation worse.

When faced with complex, wicked problem situations it can be useful to produce a structured description that attempts to fully explore all of its aspects. The next section introduces a simple way through which we can begin to do just that.

Before we do, take a moment to think about ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems in your own context:

  • Do you think the problem you described in the last step can be described as ‘tame’ or ‘wicked’?
Dewey, J. (1938). ‘The Pattern of Inquiry’ in Logic: Theory of Inquiry, New York: Holt and Company, 101–119
Rittel, H.W.J. and Webber, M. (1973). ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences Vol 4, 155–169

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This article is from the free online course:

Unleash Your Potential: Innovation and Enterprise

University of Bristol