61. Wicked Problem Scorecard

1 July 2024
How can I assess how challenging the problem is that I am facing?

Key Definitions

Managers are problem-solvers – they are oriented towards tackling issues that impede an organization from reaching its goals. They constantly try to understand what types of problems are holding the organization back, or might threaten the organization in future, and then look for a solution to enable the organization to move forward.

Yet, problems differ in their level of difficulty. Rittel and Webber (1973) famously made a distinction between tame and wicked problems. Tame problems are by their nature easy to solve, even though they might require a lot of work. Wicked problems, however, are challenging messes that are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

Conceptual Model

The Wicked Problem Scorecard is an evaluation framework for assessing a problem’s relative difficulty. An index value can be calculated for any type of problem by using 15 characteristics to judge its level of wickedness. By giving a score of 1 (fully tame) to five (fully wicked) for each of the 15 measures, then adding all the scores together and dividing by 15, an index value is calculated indicating the relative difficulty of the problem. This scorecard is not intended to convey an objective truth, but to give a rough estimation to sensitize the problem-solver(s).

Key Elements

The scorecard consists of three categories of five characteristics each:

  1. The first part focuses on the nature of the problem itself, without consideration of the stakeholders. A wicked problem is not evil, but just outright confusing and frustrating by its very structure. This is also often referred to as a problem’s level of complexity or complication. A problem is wicked if it has the following characteristics:
    1. Definition. The interpretation of the problem varies widely depending on who you ask;
    2. Separation. The problem is linked to an intricate web of other problems;
    3. Timing. The problem requires immediate attention and needs to be resolved quickly;
    4. Data. Most information needed to understand and solve the problem is unavailable;
    5. Predictability. How the problem will evolve in future can’t be objectively foreseen.
  2. The second part of the scorecard focuses on the people who play a role in the problem. Some stakeholders are involved because they believe that their interests (or those of third parties) are at stake, while others can be involved as potential problem-solvers. A problem is wicked if the stakeholders have the following characteristics:
    1. Identity. The stakeholders are unknown or there are different views on who they are;
    2. Drivers. The stakeholders’ worldview and understanding of what is important differs;
    3. Motivation. Some or all of the stakeholders don’t really want to solve the problem;
    4. Separation. Some or all of the problem solvers are themselves part of the problem;
    5. Capability. The problem solvers have limited power to influence the problem.
  3. Solution. The third part of the scorecard focuses of the nature of the potential solutions. A solution is any type of practical intervention directed at alleviating the problem. Some integrative solutions can resolve the entire problem, while some narrower measures can nudge the problem a bit closer to a solution. A problem is wicked if the solution is like this:
    1. Availability. There is no fixed set from which to choose, so solutions must be invented;
    2. Predictability. How possible interventions will influence solving the problem is uncertain;
    3. Selection. No solution is the best, as each has its own strengths and weaknesses;
    4. Execution. All potential solutions are very difficult to put into practice;
    5. Impact. Any intervention will immediately change the nature of the problem.

Key Insights

  • Wicked problems are everywhere. At school we learn to solve tame puzzles, but we seldom learn to grapple with wicked messes. Yet, wicked problems abound, when setting strategy, developing new policies, innovating, and implementing organizational change. The more senior the manager, the more their work consists of managing wicked problems.
  • Wicked problems need to be recognized. It is important to know the level of wickedness of a problem, to avoid overoptimism, naïve quick fixes, and mounting frustration. In many cases, the realistic manager will understand the problem can’t be solved but only managed.
  • Wicked problems need to be assessed. The level of wickedness can’t be scientifically determined, but can be pragmatically estimated, by evaluating three types of characteristics – what is the nature of the problem, what is the profile of the stakeholders and what is the nature of the possible solutions.
  • Wicked problems need to be measured. The Wicked Problem Scorecard is a pragmatic way to quickly measure the level of wickedness of a problem. This helps to clarify the difficulty of the challenge and create a shared understanding among all involved.
  • Wicked problems need to be tamed. It is foolish to treat a wicked problem as if it was tame, but it is pessimistic to assume that a wicked problem can’t be tamed a bit. A first step towards taming a wicked problem is by recognizing and measuring its level of wickedness. Calculating an index number is useful, but doing the assessment together is even better.
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