Creative problem-solving
GB052

Section 1: Tame and wicked problems


Tame and wicked problems

Real-life challenges are often complex systems of sub-issues woven together interdependently. Professor Horst Rittel (1972), a designer, coined the term 'wicked problems' to describe these messy situations. The table below shows how he differentiates 'tame' and 'wicked' problems. (Although he uses the term 'problem', his description applies equally to opportunities.)

Characteristic How it appears in tame problems How it appears in wicked problems
Problem formulation Can be clearly written down. The problem can be stated as a gap between what is and what 'ought' to be. There is easy agreement about the problem definition Difficult to define. Many possible explanations may exist. Individuals perceive the issue differently. Depending on which explanation one chooses, the solution takes on a different form
Testability Potential solutions can be tested as either correct or false There is no single set of criteria for whether a solution is right or wrong, they can only be more or less acceptable relative to each other
Finality Problems have a clear solution and ending point There is always room for more improvement and potential consequences may continue indefinitely
Level of analysis It is possible to bound the problem and identify its root cause. There is no need to argue about the level at which to intervene Every problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. It has no identifiable root cause and one is not sure of the appropriate level at which to intervene
Replicability It may repeat itself many times Every problem is essentially unique
Reproducability Solutions can be trialled and excluded until the correct solution is found Each problem is a one-shot operation. Once a solution is attempted, you cannot undo what you have already done

Tame problems may still require creative solutions. The creative thinking will be focused on generating ideas, rather than understanding the problem. (You will become familiar with the stages of the creative thinking process in Section 4.) Wicked problems require creative thinking techniques right from the start, to understand the nature of the challenge, define the goal, ensure all elements and perspectives are considered and then to seek solutions.

Example: The doctors' surgery

John Harris has been in his new role of Practice Manager in a busy doctors' surgery for four weeks. He has got to grips with the systems and procedures and begun to get to know how things work in terms of both direct patient care and administration.

However, he has been surprised at the number of criticisms he hears from members of staff about other staff. The doctors moan that there are always sets of patients' notes missing at every surgery, that the administration staff don't use their initiative to chase test results before patient appointments and that their cupboards are not replenished with consumables. The administration staff complain that they have too much work and that the doctors give them inaccurate or incomplete information so they have to spend time searching for names or addresses. The practice nurse says she has to do her own clerical work because the administration staff always prioritise the doctors' work. Visiting practitioners, such as the chiropodist who comes in once a week, say that although other surgeries have difficulties, things do seem worse at this one.

Although they are demotivated and quick to complain, team members seem unwilling to address their concerns, saying simply that 'it's always been like this'.

John believes work could be done more efficiently, relationships could be improved and motivation could be higher. He resolves to tackle the issues straight away and arranges a meeting to be attended by two of the doctors, two members of the admin team and the practice nurse.


Thinking Point

Activity: Tame or wicked?

Having read the short scenario, decide whether John Harris is facing a tame or a wicked problem.

Reveal discussion


Because there are many possible solutions to such 'wicked' issues, gaining acceptance of a particular solution can itself be a challenge, especially in workplace issues involving people from several disciplines. Issues can easily become very 'political', raising issues such as trust, respect, role and communication (hence the value of a creative climate - see Section 3). Discussion, debate, negotiation, etc. are often critically important to make good progress. In particular, getting agreement about the nature of the problem, challenge or opportunity is essential.

(You will be hearing more about John Harris and the GP practice later in this course.)