In this silly season of national elections, the notion of simple solutions to wicked problem is rampant. The same is true for wicked problems in the project and program management space. Government procurement is a wicked problem.
There are always voices out there ranting on about how bad everything is - and there some real examples of how bad things are - without actually providing any credible solutions.
If we first look at what it means to have a Wicked Problem we see, Rittle and Webber's definitions
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem) - this makes some sense, but is not too useful for searching for solutions
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule - this means the problem is continuous. Air pollution, green house gases, health care, federal procurement as examples of the "no stopping rule."
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse - even the better or worse may not have units of measure. Better or worse for who, over what time?
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem - if we knew that it wouldn't be wicked would it?
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly - this doesn't have to literally be the case. For weapons systems acquisition for example, the problem can be "wicked" but still be repeatable if the complexity is high enough. We know what we want in a stealth fighter, but the actual acquisition of a stealth fighter is a "wicked" problem.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan - this is the basis of Capabilities Based Planning. We need to know a small number of capabilities. When there are 100's or 1,000's of top level requirements, the problem becomes "wicked."
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem - a colleague at a local defense contractor said “The problem is…that’s not the problem.”
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution - explaining the problem, becomes a "wicked" problem.
- The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate) - this is common in all "wicked problems" for cost, schedule and technical performance estimates.