A New Perspective to Address Wicked Problems

By David Richards posted 03-07-2018 10:06


person doing rubix cube
It doesn’t seem difficult to solve an individual face of a Rubik’s cube; however, what makes the cube so complex is that each of those blocks corresponds to another and therefore changing one can change them all. This interconnected web seems to be unsolvable to the naked eye, but looking closer we can see there are in fact multiple solutions to our puzzle.

How do we solve it? How do we move the green corner piece without disjointing the completed orange side? Well, a good place to start is by changing your perspective, your understanding and your conceptualization of the problem. When we begin to think of our wicked problems as a traceable interconnected web rather than too complex to fathom, we can start to explain them.

In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber coined the term wicked problems and suggested 10 characteristics of wicked problems. One characteristic in particular that carries weight in public health is that “any wicked problem could be viewed as a symptom of another problem.” Community health issues sit well within this context; as in their complexities go beyond a single medical, economic or social solution.

There is value in public health wicked problems, though. As mentioned, when you trace or outline the problem, you can see the different sectors outside of community health that it touches. For example, though childhood obesity is by definition a medical issue, it is a symptom of another problem tangentially related to health such as food access, which can be a symptom of insufficient infrastructure, and so forth. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, we can start to address a single issue by bridging and partnering with those points along the web.

What does this look like in practice? Using childhood obesity again as an example, we can look at each environment affecting the child’s eating habits, each string of the web. These aspects include family structure and resources, schools, after-school activities, community centers and more. Next, you should consider the types of foods consumed to evaluate food accessibility and nutrition such as types of grocery, corner stores or food distributers. Community and cross-sector projects that target each segment of the “childhood obesity” value chain have the most to achieve.

One tool in particular that can simplify or clarify systems thinking is logical models. Logic models, defined by the Innovation Network, “graphically depict your program, initiative, project or even the sum total of all of your organization’s work.” Our HC50 partner, RAND, encourages logic models to ground your goal, to figure out a measurement plan and to execute it. These models can change the perspective of wicked problems and offer wicked solutions, while supporting an ongoing learning cycle throughout the stages. Visit the Learning Network to see more RAND resources.

For visual learners who want to take logic models a step further, tools such as social network analyses use network science to detail a literal web of information. This information can include all types of relationships, communications or interactions from stakeholders, partners or individuals of that community. For example, if you are leading a cross-sector project, the web should display your immediate partners, and then your partners’ partners and so forth. Read more about social media analysis.  

Wicked problems do not have to be daunting. When you can breakdown and fully understand the layers that make up the issue, you can start to make the best possible solutions. Systems thinking and tools such as logic models and social network analyses help illustrate project approaches and plans. Let’s solve that Rubik’s cube!