Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

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Wicked Problems

Wicked problems in organizations was first explained by Rittel and Weber (1973, 1984):wicked problems were defined, as a class of problems that are indeterminate, have no stopping rules, and no ultimate ‘best solution’. (Finegan, 2001) This was in contrast to ‘tame problems’ that are understood sufficiently and can be analyzed using well-known rules and linear logic, and it is apparent when a solution has been reached (Buckingham 1997)

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Figure 1: Robert E. Horn and Robert P. Weber (2007)

Wicked problems are a major force in today’s world. Working on a global stage most people recognize that the kinds of challenges faced now are wicked by nature. Tackling them will be the defining challenge of this age (Finikiotis, 2011).

Globalization has lead to an increasing number of wicked planning problems for all kinds of organizations, both for privately and publicly owned (Courtney, 2001).

In this dynamic and uncertain environment, organizational structure and processes are made up of a dense web of interconnecting factors, which increase the complexity (Finegan, 2001); this together with diverse perspectives of multiple stakeholders that form social complexity (Camillus, 2008,) give rise to wicked problems.

A main challenge of wicked problem is that it is difficult to fully appreciate the nature of the problem as it is, (Finegan, 2001) unique and the singularity is accentuated by the fact that it is unstable and uncertain — problems are like “moving targets”, they evolve as they are being addressed (Sharma, 2010). Therefore wicked problems are rarely ‘solved’; rather the task is to design a more or less effective solution (Pacanowsky, 1995). Heifitz (1994) calls these situations when there is no obvious definition of a problem or a solution Type III situations or adaptive problems.

Features of Wicked Problems

Cannot be easily defined so that all stakeholders agree on the problem to solve;

Require complex judgments about the level of abstraction at which to define the problem;

Have no clear stopping rules – a project has no clear end;

Have better or worse solutions, not right and wrong ones;

Have no objective measure of success;

Require iteration – every trial counts;

Have no given alternative solutions – these must be discovered;

Often have strong moral, political or professional dimensions.

(Buckingham 1997) as cited by Barry and Courie, 2001

Figure 2 (How to recognize a wicked problem (based upon Rittel and Weber, 1973, 1984)

Soft System Analysis: Introduction

“Wicked problems call for us to harness all the creativity and knowledge at our disposal,” says Roger Martin.

This justifies the surfacing of an interpretive system approach known as Soft System Analysis. It is a major development in Management Science as it has directed attention towards real world problem situations that are messy, ill structured, and ill defined. (den Hengst, G-J de Vreede and R Maghnouji, 2007) It is essential to see the big picture to solve the right problem (wicked problem).

Problem Structuring Method’s (PSMs)

A group of participatory approaches was developed to help shareholder groups manage wicked situations, this approach was known as “Problem Structuring Methods” (PSMs)

It is usually applied to unstructured problems characterized by multiple actors, multiple perspectives, conflicting interests, and high levels of uncertainty. (Leroy White)

PSMs impose a well-organized structure to the thinking by building and exploring a “model” of the situation. They create shared understanding about the situation being analysed and are used to effectively communicate with the shareholders and help in negotiating an agreement on a set of priorities for action. (Franco, 2011)

The questions normally asked are “what” questions, this forms a debate and negotiation between the stakeholders and analyst and makes the problem more elicit. It also makes the “problem analyst” into a facilitator.

Figure 3 (Checkland and Howell, 1998 as cited in Franco, 2011)

The main characteristic of such methods is that, to a greater or lesser extent, their primary focus is on:

The people involved with the problem and their secondary focus is on:

The problem (J E Beasley)

Different types of PSMs

The different types of PSMs are Strategic Options Development Analysis (SODA), Soft System Methodology (SSM) and Strategic Choice Approach (SCA). All real world problem situations are unique with a combination of technological issues, social conventions, politics and power, and personal beliefs and values. A particular method, or a combination of methods (Mingers and Gill, 1997) needs to be chosen for each unique situation as cited by M den Hengst, G-J de Vreede and R Maghnouji, 2007

Application of PSMs

PSMs can be applied in varied forms, they help in strategic development and policymaking, information system development, project management, inter-organizational collaboration and change in management.

Wicked Problems Faced by Airline Industry

There are two main sectors i.e.: private and public. The private sector encompasses the part of the economy that is not state controlled and run by individuals and companies with the purpose of generating profit. Companies and corporations that are government run are part of what is known as the public sector. There is also a mixed sector, which is owned by both. The industry I am going to analyse is the Airline Industry. Some examples of famous private sector airlines are Singapore Airlines and British Airways and public airlines are Air India the wicked problems faced by both the sectors remain the same in this industry.

The main “purpose” of an airline is to safely, quickly and trouble free transport of individuals from one area to another while making profit for itself. To understand this more clearly it is necessary to see the various stakeholders involved in the airline industry:

Figure 4: Stakeholders in Airlines

Thus keeping in mind the “purpose” of the Aviation Sector, the following main wicked problems have been analyzed. These problems are relevant to the purpose of the industry; they are interdependent and show tight coupling-thus they are termed as wicked problems.


Security has been a pressing issue for airlines all over the world due to the high increase in terrorist attacks since the September 9/11. There have been a number of cases around the world which involve terrorist either hijacking or smuggling of arms and ammunitions around the world

The most recent attack took place on 24th January 2011 in Moscow where a suicide bomber entered from the car park, avoiding metal detectors on his way to the arrivals area. This attack killed 35 people and injured more than 100-the people included foreigners and Russians.

a) Airport Security

Airport security forms the basis of airline security. Airport security includes restriction of carry on baggage, prohibited and restricted items, checkpoints, beware of unattended baggage, dealing with duty free articles and other such measures.

b) Airline Security

This includes the cameras being placed in aircrafts, restriction of baggage’s allowed on board in flights, passengers not allowed to move around freely on aircrafts and other such measures.

c) Pandemic

Pandemics are also included in security of an airline. Pandemics can be bigger killer than wars. The time has come to open the book to a new and dangerous chapter on 21st century communicable diseases. It is not viable to stop travel due to the rise of pandemics. Airports need to make sure that people from an infected area do not travel to an uninfected area.

Natural Disaster:

While natural disasters are localized, they cause global effects. Again, this is due to the nature of the airline’s business. When a major destination is affected by a natural disaster, then traffic to that destination, wherever it originates, is affected.

The recent earthquake in Japan is a reason for declining flights to Japan. The Icelandic volcanic eruptions that took place last year also showed a delay in flights in the UK region.

Political Instability:

Egypt’s and Tunisia’s overturn of their Presidents, the war in Lybia, the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan all contribute to the political unrest taking place which has a negative impact on the airline sector.

Disruptions in Air Traffic Control:

There have been instances where air traffic control failure has taken place and the entire airport has come to a stand still. The flights that are affected are all flights that have a connection to the airport, thus it has a chain effect. Cause other regions are also affected when one particular airport has air traffic control disruption.

d) Pollution (Environmental issue)

Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when most other sectors have been reducing emissions. Some estimates prove that air travel accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. A true environment friendly person will either abstain or limit using this mode of transportation as much as possible.

Oil Prices:

Airlines have to contend with escalating fuel prices and predictions, that when the current bull market is over, prices will settle at around USD100 per barrel. Currently they are hovering around USD120/b but are unpredictable. In July 2008, the price peaked at just shy of USD150 and that was a significant factor in devastating losses for many carriers, creating merger and takeover mania – and a rash of failures. Some airlines made money by hedging some lost. Some have unwound their hedging strategies and are now buying at commercial rates. One of those is AirAsia that says that it is comfortable with prices of around USD120/b but assumes that other, higher cost; airlines – including some budget airlines that have narrower margins – will find themselves in difficulty (www.chiefofficers.net, 2011)

Alternative Fuel Type:

Energy Independence and Security Act, is addressing oil dependence and global warming, hence a shift to bio-fuel could be seen.

Labor Unrest

Certain airlines like British Airways have constant strikes. This leads to disruption in the work environment and along with that delays and inconvenience to several passengers traveling. In September 2010, UNITE, the UK union, filed a lawsuit against BMI, a wholly owned Lufthansa subsidiary. The suit alleges wage raises that BMI had promised were not paid. Additionally, the Lufthansa-led restructuring of BMI resulted in 750 job losses last year.

Changing Trends of Population:

Since there has been a major development in the field of medicine the life expectancy of people has increased considerably and this will contribute to the changing trends with an increase of the older population.

Use of Analytic Support:

To solve the above problem multi-methodology will be used:

The stakeholders groups are taken into workshops and their views are noted down. This leads to building of a relevant system model and validation of this model is then checked.

Building the relevant system model for this situation will be done with a multi-methodology. Use of Cognitive mapping (SODA) and Soft System Methodology (SSM) will be implemented. A brief narrative of the two methods if given below:


In the SODA technique, a graphical illustration of the problematic situation is built, and this explores the options and their consequences with respect to a complex system of goals or objectives. (Fran Ackermann and Colin Eden, 2010) This illuminates the analyst about the issues being faced would be and how they would be linked to the objectives of the company. Causal maps are constructed – this is a formally constructed means-ends network – as representation form. Since the picture has been created using the natural language of the problem owners (different stakeholders) it becomes a model of the situation that is ‘owned’ by those who define the problem. The use of formalities for the construction of the model makes it agreeable to a range of analyses as which can be used in visual inspection or through the use of specialist causal mapping software (Decision Explorer) (Fran Ackermann and Colin Eden, 2010)

CLASS NOTEs diagram (Franco, 2011)

Soft System Methodology

SSM is widely described as a seven-stage process, as follows:

1. Identifying the problematic situation that it is desired to intervene in

2. Researching the situation and building a ‘rich picture’ (interpretive representation) of it

3. Selecting perspectives and building ‘root definitions’ (key processes that need to take place within the desired system)

4. Developing a conceptual model of the change system

5. Comparing the model with the real-world situation

6. Defining the changes to be implemented

7. Taking action. (Lester, 2008)

Figure 5 Summary of SSM as a seven-stage process (adapted from Checkland, 1999, 163)

System Method, as an organization-oriented methodology, can be used for developing information systems when the problem situation is unclear and ill structured. SSM is often used as a front-end before proceeding to the physical aspects of systems development, such as logical and physical design. SSM is implemented by constructing rich pictures, root definitions, and conceptual models. SSM is organization oriented and aims to develop high-quality conceptual models. Cognitive mapping has great potential to supplement SSM to achieve this goal. The quality in conceptual modeling has a ripple effect on the quality of the end product

The early stages of SSM are concerned with understanding the problem situation. Rich pictures have been proved to be an invaluable tool for this purpose. However no specific tool has been stated to reach the broad and high-grained view. In this project the use cognitive mapping as a communication tool between the analysts and the users for initial investigation is taken. After the rich picture is created, the analyst can also use cognitive mapping to decompose it into greater detail. (Siau, 2005)


Implications for Soft System Analysis

Implications for consultants

There are certain implications for the consultant, the managers of the airline company that are facing the above mentioned wicked problems will under immense stress and the consultant needs to assure that they provide them with support. This support will enable managers to

Think systematically about the situation, i.e. explicitly articulating contrasting views to uncover complexity;

Ask the ‘right’ questions, triggered by the exploration, analysis, and testing of competing views of the situation, with a view to deriving appropriate responses to the issues;

Organize collaborative problem-solving effort that facilitates shared understanding, negotiation and ‘equifinality’ of action.

(Franco, 2011)

Implications for research

The interactive nature of soft system analysis possesses certain requirements. The models created are used to throw light on the problems being faced and have to represent reality in a satisfactory way. Ground research on the problem will provide insight into the best and most appropriate techniques to be used. Several research directions are possible and are currently being explored such as SSM being used with a more Rigor Soft Methods (RSM) approach, consultant needs to have certain leadership qualities to be successful and other such options.


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Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving. (2019, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/what-are-the-wicked-problems-facing-private-and-public-sector-organizations-for-which-analytic-support-might-be-helpful/

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