Transparent Taming of Wicked Problems

In ta previous post, 21st century education was presented as a wicked problem. Whereas tame problems are definable (cause and effect can be clearly identified), understandable (methods for resolving the problem are known or can be known), and consensual (reasonable people will agree on the need to solve it), wicked problems are none of these; and as was reviewed in that chapter, many of the characteristics of wicked problems follow from the observation that the evaluation of solutions depends on one’s perspective on the problem and the solution that was implemented in any situation. One strategy to begin the transition to wicked problem solving is to treat wicked problems as if they are tame, but to do so in a transparent manner: Leaders who adopt this strategy take steps to ensure all involved understand the strategy and will create temporary solutions until the problem can be approached in a wicked way.


For educators, the ability to identify when a wicked problem is being tamed is important for several reasons. Others may be seeking to tame a wicked problem,  or they may be seeking to solve a wicked problem as if it were a tame problem.  It has been established that many of the strategic and logistic planning activities common in K-12 schools are modeled after the methods developed by and for those who engineer solutions to tame problems. By recognizing when tame approaches are being applied to wicked problems, an educator can take steps to minimize the adverse affects of the solution. Alternatively, educators may seek to actively tame problems rather than to seek to design a more complete solution that provides more options (designing non-zero-sum solutions to replace zero-sum solutions). Further, by being aware that wicked problems are being tamed, educators can be prepared to be skeptical of using the results of the solution as evidence for expanding fact in progressive discourse. When adopting these less-than-optimal approaches to solving wicked problems, educators have a responsibility to ensure that the method does not result in a different or unintended problem to be solved; educators adopting these methods must be skeptical of the results or conclusions that arise.


Jeff Conklin (n.d.), a consultant who works with diverse organizations to build capacity to design solutions to wicked problems, observed that in many situations, planners attempt to solve wicked problems as if the problems were tame. He suggested that there are six recognizable approaches to taming wicked problems.

Lock Down the Problem Definition

When planners reduce a complex wicked problem to a smaller one that is easy to define and bound, the planners are locking down the problem definition. It has been established that wicked problems have many and ill-defined causes, but when taming the problem through problem lock-down, the planners attempt to solve one cause that is assumed (sometimes accurately, sometime not) to be the primary cause of the problem.

Assert the Problem is Solved

It has been established that every solution to a wicked problem is open to interpretation and that it will be evaluated differently by different populations and at different times, as a result any solution can be perpetually revised and refined before it is implemented. When caught in that cycle of revision, time and resources are unavailable to address other problems. In this situation, planners can conclude the current solution is sufficient. This allows planners to avoid the situation in which solving a wicked problem consumes a disproportionate amount of any limiting resource or that failure to implement a partially-sufficient solution exacerbates the original problem.

Specify Objectives to Measure Success

Planners who assert a problem is solved typically make the decision to change the focus of the organization to avoid depleting resources further. That decision is made when further activity becomes untenable. An alternative to ending work when partial solution is achieved is to define the criteria that will signal an acceptable solution before the solution design begins and it will end when those conditions are met. If a school seeks to improve students’ scores on a particular standardized test, then the expected level may be defined prior to initiating efforts, and once that level is achieved, then school improvement efforts can focus on a different problem.

Cast the Problem as ‘Just Like’ Another

Although it has been established that wicked problems (and their solutions) are unique, planners may decide that a problem is sufficiently similar to another that a previous solution (or a solution implemented for another setting) will serve as a model for problem solving activities. Such taming of wicked problems may fail, however, as unforeseen factors or unknown assumptions may make the two situations different. The advantage, however, is that solutions can be implemented and then modified to meet the new situation.

Give Up on Trying to Get a Good Solution

When a planner discovers that factors affecting the problem definition (or solution) emerge from levels within the organization over which the planner can exert no control, then the decision may be made to abandon attempts to solve the problem. In this situation, planners develop strategies for accommodating the influences of the problems on their work or develop methods to work around the difficulties so as to minimize the disruption caused by the problem on his or her performance.

Frame the Problem as Limited Choices

A final strategy for taming wicked problems is to define several acceptable solutions and then decide which the best for the particular situation is. This method of taming a wicked problem is similar to defining a criterion of success prior to beginning. In both methods, measures or options are imposed from outside sources; and those solutions may be actually solving a different problem.


Conklin, Jeffrey. (n.d.) Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. Napa, CA: CogNexus Instutute. Accessed November 2, 2011, /wickedproblems.pdf.