Unraveling Wicked Problems
February 5, 2018—One of the most critical skills leaders need, arguably now more than ever, is that of problem solving. The challenges facing congregations and organizations continue to become more technologically complex, socially entangled, costly, and multi-faceted. It is evident that most religious leaders are not just dealing with programmatic, administrative, and technological problems, they are dealing with wicked problems. The experience can feel like trying to unravel an endless tangled cord.
A wicked problem is a form of social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements for their solution. When these problems are unrecognized as such the attempt is to solve them through policies, the wrong means, or, simply ignored as too hard to tackle, merely kicking the proverbial can down the road, only to have it come back worse.
Horst Rittel, one of the first to research wicked problems, references ten characteristics that describe this sort of complicated challenge:
- Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. Therefore, it becomes difficult for a dean to define the problem that needs to be addressed. This is a significant challenge given the tendency for people to want to know the one answer and simplest solution to a complex problem. With complex problems, it’s never about just one thing.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule, or criteria upon which to determine “solving.” Unlike challenges with clearly defined outcomes and measures of completion, wicked problems are persistent and tend to be moving targets. The answer to “When will we ever solve this problem?” is “Never.”
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false; they can only be good or bad. When leaders tackle wicked problems the best approach is to choose the best strategy at the time. Arguing about what “should” or “should not” be is pointless.
- There is no complete list of applicable “moves” for a solution to a wicked problem. Wicked problems require leaders to be imaginative, fleet, flexible, and innovative.
- There are always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending on the individual perspective of the perceiver. Hence, pastoral leaders will constantly deal with the impasse of multiple interpretations. The pastor will see it one way, the staff another, church members in their own way, church lay leaders differently altogether. Where one sits in the system determines one’s perspective. It should come as no surprise, then, that no one will see the problem in the same way the leader does. This requires a systems approach to most wicked problems, as no singular perspective suffices.
- Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. Like a knotted bunch of cords, pulling on one end of the problem merely creates tension and tightens the knot on the other end. Leaders need to be systems thinkers, understanding the interconnected complexity of the enterprise.
- No solution of a wicked problem has a definitive, scientific test. When proposing strategies for addressing complex problems leaders often face the call to give evidence or proof that the action will be successful. That’s just not possible with wicked problems. They require the courage to risk and the ability to adapt along the way.
- Every wicked problem is unique. The problems facing organizations are endemic to all similar ones, merely by virtue that they are systems of a type. But it remains true that leaders will have to solve their own problems in their own context.
- Finally, to paraphrase Rittel, leaders attempting to solve a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions. That’s the burden of leadership. Few, if any, in the organization will take responsibility for tackling wicked problems. That comes with the job of being the leader.
While not all problems a leader faces are wicked, those that are will be the most demanding. Even difficult problems can have a solution, and most leaders can get adept at tackling them. But wicked problems will be the most challenging to leaders due to the indeterminate scope and scale required to address them. Wicked problems can’t be fixed; they’ll be the bane of every successive pastoral or organizational leader in office.
What are the wicked problems you face in your church or organization?
Who are you consulting with on addressing the wicked problems?
Are you aware of your biases which may hinder you from seeing alternative and imaginative approaches?
Are you alert to unintended consequences as you apply strategies to wicked problems?
In what ways are you defining and interpreting the wicked problems to the various audiences in your school?
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and; A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan; and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context..