How to Solve Wicked Problems

A different way of thinking about problems.


Peter Balint, Ron Stewart, Anand Desai and Lawrence Walters have published the book “Wicked Environmental Problems- Managing Uncertainty and Conflict.” In this 2011 book, the authors survey the battle over environmental management among prodevelopment, propreservation, and other interest groups that began in the 1960s and continue today.   They theorize that political compromises often result in fundamental differences in public values and, therefore, issues never are resolved.  They highlight four case studies demonstrating how environmental issues turn into wicked problems because of fundamental values differences.  The authors spotlight the efforts to restore the Everglades, manage the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, the goals to implementing a cap and trade program for carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union, and the problems in managing the Sierra Nevada forests in California.  Each case study looks at the characteristic responses to policy, the attempts to solve complex dilemmas, and the author’s proposed solution of implementing the learning network process for decision making. The learning network process emphasizes the engagement of all stakeholders in creative, transparent dialogue; it is a deliberative process of engaged and collaborative decision making.

Ultimately, the authors stress that since wicked problems have no optimal solution, the manager while required to act, is “released from the impossible task of finding the one correct response.”   The authors feel that naming a problem as a “wicked” problem, allows managers and their teams to respond differently and perhaps more effectively as decision makers.

Balint and others write that solutions to wicked problems are “not true or false, but good or bad or better or worse or satisfying or good enough.”   It is this concept that perhaps could be most pivotal in a competitive business environment where environmental, human and financial  wicked problems are pervasive and we continue to look for the perfect solution.   In science, we seek certainty but accept probability and therefore seek the best solution, not the perfect solution. Sustainability champions can learn from science and wicked problem theory.

For example, think about the world of medicine; rarely is there a perfect solution.  Many a patient leaves a doctor’s appointment with a chronic illness realizing that medicine is both an art and science, neither exact.   In addition, analyze the field of economic indicators like gross national product (GNP) and you’ll see how quickly GNP can become a wicked problem. For example, Hurricane Sandy has cost millions of dollars of damage; it is a tragedy of enormous scale.  Yet our GNP will go up in 2012 because of this tragedy and the millions spent on rescue, repair and rebuilding.  The wicked problem grows because there are growing values differences on the costs associated with rebuilding on barrier islands.  The lack of inclusion of externalities in indicators like GNP, demonstrates that the GNP has become a wicked problem. Both GNP and Medicine, along with many are others, are wicked problems because they are politically complex, there are conflicting values, and there is a lack of any problem statement.

As leaders in sustainability, we are trained to seek solutions in the triple bottom line approach.   In some ways, we are setting ourselves up for wicked problems because the challenges of coming to ideal solutions through the three lenses of people, planet and profit are highly unlikely because of the complexity and range of values in environmental, social and economic issues.  However, if we release ourselves from the perfect solution and look for a good enough solution, we may very well be able to move ourselves forward.  In fact, some of the wicked problems we face with health care coverage, public transportation, affordable housing,  energy development in the US,  poverty alleviation,  preservation of open space,  food security, and economic development in areas with rising sea level,  may be better served by naming them as “wicked problems.”  Perhaps if we name them, we can then shift our problem solving efforts and decisions making strategies to a more collaborative, inclusive process that engages a wide range of stakeholder opinions and values in a more productive fashion.  One such project in New Hampshire is leading the way in this learning network approach.

New Hampshire Listens is a project from the University New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute.  Their goal is to help citizens gather to have conversations around small and large challenges.   They state:  “Solving public problems is a challenging task, since members of the same community sometimes have very different solutions to shared problems. Lack of supportive ways to talk about those challenges can lead to misunderstandings which, in turn, may create hostility across competing views. NH Listens works with local and statewide partners to bring people together for productive conversations that augment traditional forms of government, like town meetings or school board meetings.  Our vision is to create a network of engaged communities in New Hampshire that can share their experiences and resources for getting ‘unstuck’ and solving public problems.”    New Hampshire Listens has designed a structure to address wicked problems at the community level.

Wicked Environmental Problems is a book that sparks readers to think differently about problem solving.  It also reminds us that in these times of complex, large scale problems, the solutions are not always rooted in more public policy but in more collaborative conversations of engaged and committed citizens.

One response

Leave a Reply