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Wicked problems cannot be solved. They can only be advanced

Datum:06 februari 2019
Wicked problems cannot be solved. They can only be advanced
Wicked problems cannot be solved. They can only be advanced

Suppose, you are the director of a large museum in which local, national and international art is exhibited. You observe that the public who visits the museum are mostly middle-aged tourists and other one-time visitors. Local inhabitants are sporadically seen. Local young visitors even less. As director, you would like to engage the local inhabitants more with your museum and build a sustainable relationship with them. After all, it’s their tax money that is being spent on exhibitions. Beautiful goal, but how to achieve it?

1. Help, I have a wicked problem!

This is a problem experienced by many museums, as I have observed in my research. Companies interested in engaging more closely with their customers recognize the struggle too. Both are dealing with what is known as a ‘wicked problem’.

What makes this problem wicked is that the old adagio of ‘build it and they will come’ does not hold true in these situations. As museum director you can no longer devise a plan and implement it, because you are not the only person with an interest in this case: the municipality supplying the budget has a say as well, curators have an opinion about what is relevant to exhibit or not, sponsoring businesses and partners have an interest too, and the public has its expectations of what they would like to see or do in the museum.

When bringing the issue to the table at the annual stakeholders meeting, you observe quite soon that the way your partners and stakeholders define the problem, and whether this is a problem in the first place, may be quite different from what you had in mind. You come to realize that finding a commonly accepted solution will be a long road

2. Wicked problems cannot be (entirely) solved.

Your realization is correct. Wicked problems are challenging problems to define and solve. Engineering problems, like how to build a bridge, are easier to define along a number of generally agreed-upon parameters. In searching for a solution, one can use calculations and drawings to guide the search. When the bridge is built and it stands, the problem is solved.

Yet, how to build an interactive museum or a collaborative organization is less agreed-upon, because each organization can have its own definition of interaction or collaboration. When the museum is interactive, and the problem is solved, is hard to define as well due to different gradations of social interactions. While a bridge is a static product, an interactive museum or a collaborative organization is a living organism that grows, shrinks, changes goals and values as time and people pass. The solutions for such wicked problems are never really true or false in a mathematical sense. They are either good or bad ideas, at the current time.

The proof is in testing these ideas in the real world. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But with every test and try, the organization is getting closer and closer to achieving its goal: engaging with the public in a meaningful, sustainable way.  

3. Wicked problems are issues to be advanced.

In my research on wicked problems, I analyze the controversies that are visible among the partners on what they think needs to be done and how. I focus on uncertainties, things that are unclear, half-baked ideas. The goal is to map the different ways in which the stakeholders involved define and understand the task at hand, with the aim of encouraging reflection and the generation of ideas.

 These controversies and the uncertainties that come with them are the locus of innovation and the drive for addressing wicked problems. Managers able to embrace uncertainty, listen to others and engage in debates about goals and how to achieve them are the ones best equipped to advance wicked problems.


For further details, please contact:

Ileana Maris-de Bresser