Wicked problems


There are simple problems, and complex problems. Simple problems are easy to solve. Complex problems resist solving and often require other ways of thinking. Wicked problems even resist defining. They not only require other ways of thinking, but also require the involvement of other (interested) parties to work on solutions.

Our increasingly interconnected world faces many wicked problems, but at the same time also unprecedented opportunities and innovations to address them[1]. Wicked problems include issues like poverty, inequality, global health and environmental degradation. These issues demand new ways of thinking and more sophistical approaches based on collaboration with a large number of stakeholders.


Defining characteristics of Wicked Problems are:

(1) every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another wicked problem

(2) the problem is not understood until after the formulation of all conceivable solutions;

(3) they have no stopping rule; there is always a better solution possible

(4) their solutions are not right or wrong; only better or worse

(5) every problem is essentially novel and unique;

(6) there is no ultimate test of a solution for a wicked problem, because a wrong solution can make the problems’ symptoms even more wicked.

From these characteristics, it becomes clear that wicked problems represent those issues in life that will constantly recur. After the initiators Rittel and Webber (1973), we are calling them "wicked" not because these properties are themselves ethically deplorable. We use the term "wicked" in a meaning akin to that of "malignant","vicious" (like a circle) or "tricky" (like a leprechaun) and even "aggressive"[2]. They are real problems, instead of challenges and they need our full attention in order to tackle them.


There are several reasons why wicked problems are not yet adequately addressed:

(1) Incomplete or contradicting information

(2) A large diversity of opinions and possible solutions that obstructs the achievement of any definite strategy

(3) Stakeholders are not fully engaged and have unequal or incongruent desires and stakes

(4) The real problem is not addressed because suggested solutions are too simple, too technical or too naïve. Those solutions can even worsen the problem.

(5) There is no realistic business case for the solution, so its financial sustainability is limited


Wicked problems are cross-sectoral and universal, and therefore demand change that involves stakeholders from every part of society: from profit, non-profit, public and private organisations[3]. They require higher levels of awareness, higher ambitions to solve – your head, hands and heart in combination[4]. Moreover, it is necessary that you address the problem together with others, because their involvement is not only important for helping define the problem, but also in implementing solutions. These are vital conditions for taming the wickedness of the problem.


[1] Waddock, S. (2012) More than Coping: Thriving in a World of Wicked Problems. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review. Volume 15, Special Issue B

[2] Rittel and Webber (1973) Dilemma’s in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences (4), p 155-169. Quote: p160

[3] Staat hier iets over in het GBSM boek? Of in het booklet over partnering space?

[4] Education of the heart publiction