Strategies to Solve Wicked Problems


A wicked problem is a term used to describe public policy issues such as air pollution, bullying, and animal rights. The policies are described with the term wicked because they are aggressive or tricky when solving them. The most challenging issues might appear difficult to solve, and the article “Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning” has solutions to this (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Below is an essay that contains strategies to solve the problems, ethical principles in solving the problem, possible ways to tackle the problems, and the criminal justice system’s wicked problems, according to the article.

Solving the “Wicked Problems”

Several ways can be used to solve problems, especially wicked problems. According to Rittel and Webber (1973), some strategies can be used to solve wicked problems according to some formulation, whether the problem is unique and the characteristics of the problem. Corruption is an example of a wicked problem that causes hindrance to the act of policymaking. In order to solve the problem of corruption, the root causes have to be identified first. Government officials are normally the major suspects, as well as those partners on government contracts. Therefore, outsourcing the players in this corruption game is just a stepping stone to its solution.

According to the article, wicked problems could be characterized as being unique. The authors state that one should identify the distinguishing features to solve them. They state that between two or more wicked problems, there cannot be one missed distinguishing factor that can be used to solve each problem separately (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Issues such as bullying and violation of animal rights seem to be close to one another. However, they can be dealt with separately by identifying the people involved in both. Instead, the methods used in the two barriers can help in dealing with each separately.

Another strategy that can solve the difficulties is pointing out the suspected causative agents, such as other related barriers to the main problem. According to Rittel and Webber, a problem can be caused by another, especially if they share something in common. It is good to solve the suspected causative before solving the main problem (Rittel and Webber, 1973). The author states that the conditions of subway construction in the city may look similar to that of San Francisco. However, the problem in both is the construction planners, and hence their problem should be solved before solving the construction difficulties being experienced at work.

Best Suited Principles

Ethical principles refer to the standard approaches used in the justification or defense of moral judgments and are not subjective to any single person’s point of view. In dealing with wicked problems, there is a doctrine followed to help evaluate and understand the cause of the barriers and the applicable ways to deal with them. Firstly, in an attempt to comprehensively describe the barriers, there is no particular descriptive formulation. Normally for tame ones, an intensive description of them containing all data for defining, understanding and approaching does exist for the solver (Rittel and Webber, 1973). However, in the case of wicked problems, there is a strong connection between one’s comprehension and perspective. This means to describe and understand sufficiently, and one has to invent effective, knowledgeable solutions to it exhaustively.

Secondly, there is no stopping rule for dealing with a wicked problem. In problems such as chess, there is always a criterion followed, and also, a person can tell when to stop. In dealing with wicked ones, the solutions depend entirely on one’s understanding. There is no open system or criteria for approaching them. Additional knowledge enhances the chances of finding a presentable approach.

There are no true or false answers to wicked problems. There are no conventionalized criteria for aiding in whether the solution at hand is the best answer to the current problem presented. Usually, several parties are entitled to the freedom to analyze and give opinions regarding the problem. Still, none has the power to formalize a decision and regard it as officially correct (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Their judgments may differ widely due to different ideological diversities, values, and beliefs. They are termed as either good, bad, satisfactory, or good enough.

Possible Ways to Tackle Wicked Problems

Several methods can be used to solve problems in real-life situations, including trial and error methods, brainstorming, heuristics methods, and working backward methods. The trial and error method is applicable to solve problems, especially when there are many possible methods. This is because trial and error are characterized by repetition and several attempts until it works. Heuristic, a mental strategy method, has a utility by applying the rule of thumb in which one does practice instead of theory. Heuristic involves collecting data concerning the problem at intervals, and the data can be analyzed to get the problems.

In addition, the problem-solving method that can be used is the brainstorming method. The method involves collecting problem solutions ideas from different people and combining them to get a distinct solution. It is different from the Trial-and-error method since it involves a combination of the solutions, while trial and error involve applying all ideas given and thought to provide the solution. The last way to tackle wicked problems is to work backward. In this method, one looks for the possible cause of the problem by identifying when the problem began. Once the point where problems began is identified, the problem cause can be identified and dealt with appropriately.

Example of a Wicked Problem and Approach

Wicked Problem: War on Drugs

Drug and substance abuse involves the use of prescriptive drugs for leisure purposes. There is a variety of approaches to dealing with the problem of substance abuse, and the authoritative approach is one way of dealing with the issue. An example of this is the involvement of local emergency departments, where one can inquire about their prescription protocols. This would help curb the issuance of overprescriptions, especially for over-the-counter drugs (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Also, one could utilize monitoring programs that regulate prescriptions and ensure people know of their existence as they are inexpensive.

Alternative method of approaching the war on drugs is a collaboration with the youth. In this, helping people with education and finding jobs, and not just getting sober, could help deal with the problem of relapse after sobriety. Increasing the training of peer counselors and motivation of those dealing with addiction through therapy is also another approach. Conveying positive messages on why drug users should embrace therapy and quit drug use could help with the recovery of a drug addict.

Moreover, the focus should be put on the learning of those in fields such as nursing, or health science generally, law, social work, and even student affairs. This is because they are normally the first handlers of the victims, and an appropriate objective approach to the enlightening how to approach the drug users is important. Consultation with experts and exchange of knowledge with clients and colleagues helps in ending the drug war (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Advocating for recovery problems in educational institutions is important since most former drug users are most likely to relapse if appropriate measures are not put into place.

Another collaborative approach is advocating for quality education and prevention programs for high school and college students. This is due to the constant presence of peer pressure, which drives many youngsters to linger in drug use. Testing for recreational drug uses such as opiates and ADHD drugs could help scale if patients are being underdosed or overdosed in their prescriptions. An in-depth analysis of patients to determine if they are on alcohol or drug use could help avoid misdiagnosis.


In conclusion, it is important to differentiate properties according to their features and identify the possible cause of the problem since the strategies used in the article to solve wicked problems include identifying all viable and productive solutions. In dealing with wicked problems, a doctrine of ethical principles applies, where wicked problems have no particular descriptive formulation. Therefore, there is no stopping rule for solving a wicked problem, among others, and the war on drugs is an example of a wicked problem. Other possible ways that can be used to tackle wicked problems include trial and error methods, working backward, as well as a heuristic, and brainstorming.


Rittel, H.W. and Webber, M.A. (1973). Dilemmas in a general planning theory. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

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