How to spot a wicked problem

Design theorist Horst Rittel first coined the term ‘wicked problem’ in his 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’. He shares a set of characteristics of wicked problems, which we have adapted into a handy checklist for your reference:

Check list

Here are some telltale signs that a problem is ‘wicked’:

  • 1. Unique
    Each wicked problem is essentially one-of-a-kind; there is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.

  • 2. Multiple root causes
    There is always more than one explanation for what’s causing a wicked problem, and different people might have different perspectives on this.
  • 3. Interconnected
    Each wicked problem can be linked to other problems, and can emerge as multiple problems are perpetuated by each other.
  • 4. No ‘stopping rule’
    It is impossible to know whether the problem is fully resolved and under control, and there is no visible point at which to  top iterating and searching for further/better solutions.
  • 5. Success is subjective
    There are no ‘true' or 'false’ solutions, only ‘better’ and ‘worse’.
  • 6. Difficult to measure
    There is no immediate test to see if a solution is working: there may be time delays or attribution issues.
  • 7. 'One-shot operation’
    Solutions tend to be high-investment, without an opportunity to learn from trial-and-error.
  • 8. Many possible solutions
    There is no definitive set of solutions that will fully resolve the wicked problem.