reminder: wicked problems are really, really hard to solve

My interest in public sector operations research has led me to appreciate so-called “wicked problems” (as opposed to “tame” problems). Wicked problems often reflect the soft side of operations research and are why some models are so complex. Due to the social component of the problem, there are many stakeholders with contradictory needs. A problem that is wicked quickly unravels due to the connections it has to other issues that are also social, and so on. Russell Ackoff summed this up nicely:

“Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.”

Here are a few slides on wicked problems from my Public Sector OR course:

It’s worth talking about wicked problems because I would argue that the Trump administration is not handling wicked problems well. Instead, Trump offered quick fixes to wicked problems on the campaign trail. That is not unusual, many politicians often do this before an election. I’m more concerned that the new administration is not willing to tackle wicked problems in all their complexity post-inauguration. Healthcare and immigration are wicked problems that cannot be “solved” by a quick fix! The implementation of the immigration plan was not planned, and unfortunately, several people have died as a result. Rushing through a wicked problem, especially when there are risks to life and limb, can be deadly.

The Republicans involved in the healthcare dialog seem to be acknowledging wickedness. That is promising.

I recommend C. West Churchman’s guest editorial in Management Science in 1967, where the term “wicked problems” was coined [pdf: Wicked Problems Churchman 1967] and this nice article on “wicked” problems by John Mingers in OR/MS Today.

Related reading:



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