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Oct 13

How "Wicked Problems" Affect Large Systems Change

A large part of a government agency's work deals with managing a wicked problem. For those not familiar with the concept, let's turn to the most authoritative source on Earth:

"Wicked problem" is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil but rather its resistance to resolution.  Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. Wikipedia - Wicked Problem.

Steve Waddell explains the legitimacy of "large systems change" as a new research field because current organizations do not know how to deal with wicked problems. Mr. Waddell equates large systems change with wicked problems because they have three characteristics in common:Scientific uncertainty. There is a lack of scientific knowledge on the cause-effect relationships of the problem and its possible solutions (Dietz et al. 2003; Hajer 2003; Batie 2008; Head and Alford 2013). Hence, the outcomes of organizational actions aiming to tackle wicked problems cannot be measured from just one perspective or disentangled from other actions.

  1. Scientific uncertainty. There is a lack of scientific knowledge on the cause-effect relationships of the problem and its possible solutions (Dietz et al. 2003; Hajer 2003; Batie 2008; Head and Alford 2013). Hence, the outcomes of organizational actions aiming to tackle wicked problems cannot be measured from just one perspective or disentangled from other actions.
  2. Value conflict among stakeholders. Stakeholders influenced by, or influencing, wicked problems have conflicting expectations, beliefs, frames, goals and values regarding wicked problems (Batie, 2008; Weber and Khademian, 2008). Particularly conflicting values are hard to reconcile, because trade-offs in organizational actions are likely to occur and win-win-win solutions are hard if not impossible to find.
  3. Dynamic complexity. Wicked problems are volatile and evolve over time, sometimes linearly but frequently unpredictably and unexpectedly (Rittel and Webber 1973; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Thus, there are no definite and objective solutions to the problem, which needs to be permanently monitored in its evolution over time.

The large systems change field looks promising for my new theory of government and I especially like the emphasis on wicked problems. Might be some fruitful intersections to explore.

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