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Three Types of Problem
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  • There are three types of problem: Tame, Complex and Wicked. Be sure you know which type you are working on.

    There are other ways of characterising problems (eg, linear/non-linear, hard/soft, the Cynefin Framework - which focusses on cause/effect) but the three types cover the whole spectrum.

    Tame Problems

    A Tame problem can be solved in a linear fashion using straightforward, reductionist, repeatable, sequential techniques.

    They are amenable to traditional project management approaches and they introduce limited/known/manageable consequences and no unintended consequences.

    A Tame problem is well defined, its solution is clear and can be given to a designer to create detialed specificiations and project manager to implement.

    Complex Problems

    Complex problems tend to be non-linear, difficult to understand and their solutions can lead to other problems and unintended consequences. All problems involving new technology, new development environments or new applications should be considered to be complex.

    Traditional analytic and project management techniques will fail.

    A complex problem is not solvable by reductionist or sequential approaches.

    Some Complex probelms are just very difficult. The characteristics of the problem may be well understood, such as in the areas of factoring prime numbers, fluid dynamics, travelling salesmen scheduling and non-linear systems. There is another group of Complex problems where the problem is not well understood. This class of problem is called Wicked.

    Wicked Problems

    Wicked problems are the hardest to solve and have an overlap with Complex problems.

    Wicked problems are where goals are either not known or ambiguous, and means-ends relationships are poorly understood. Wicked problems were first discussed by Rittel and Webber in 1973 and related to social systems. It should be noted that information systems that have significant end user user involvement will probably be Wicked. The majority of the characteristics of the problem that will cause trouble will be around human behaviour, not the IT infrastructure, however the "one shot operation" aspect (see below) can make even systems that have little or no human end user involvement can still be Wicked.

    Wicked problems have the most value to an enterprise, if solved satisfactorily.

    Some specific aspects of Wicked Problem include:

    1    You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

    Indeed, there is no definitive statement of "The Problem." The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.

    2    Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

    Since there is no definitive "The Problem", there is also no definitive "The Solution." The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources.

    3    Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong,

    simply "better," "worse," "good enough," or "not good enough."

    4    Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

    There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted.

    5    Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation,"

    every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, "One cannot build a freeway to see how it works." This is the "Catch 22" about wicked problems: you can't learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.

    6    Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

    There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of.

    (from Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Rittel and Webber)

    Rittel and Webber were working in the context of social and political problems, however the concept of Wicked problems can be extended to other domains.

    Most large scale IT projects fall into the Wicked problem class.

    Treating these projects as simple problems and applying simple solution techniques is the most common reason for their failures. It is usually phrased as a “requirements” issue, but only because those involved in such failed projects are oblivious to the fact that they are not competent to address Wicked problems.

    Bernard Robertson-Dunn, 2011

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