Wednesday, August 21, 2013


While listening to President Obama’s State of the Union Address last February, I was struck by the long list of problems he wants the country to tackle during his second term. It is clear that the United States faces many daunting and even dangerous challenges, and it was heartening to see Obama speaking optimistically about both our opportunities and chances of success. Sadly, however, I don’t believe that we will make much progress in solving our biggest problems, no matter how hard the President, Congress, and others try. This is because our country faces a large number of “wicked problems.”

A wicked problem is a social problem that is difficult if not impossible to solve because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of different interests and perspectives involved, and the problem’s interconnectedness to other problems. Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites ten characteristics of these complicated social issues. When you read them, you get the sense that no governing body can solve the kinds of problems mentioned in the State of the Union Address: gun violence, immigration, unemployment, war, international cooperation, and so on. But yet wicked problems are the very problems we need to solve, or at least mitigate, if we want to enjoy our future rather than merely survive it.

How should we Americans go about solving our wicked problems? The primary requirement is to use systemic thinking. A system is a set of interrelated elements that make a unified whole. The elements of a system can be tightly or loosely coupled, meaning that the effects of a change somewhere in the system can be direct (tightly coupled) or indirect (loosely coupled). Systems theory maintains that “everything is related to everything else.” To fully understand a problem, therefore, requires one to understand the systems it is embedded in, the nature of the relationships within and across those systems, and how the various systems are changing and evolving. This level of problem understanding, of course, is a tall order for any individual or group to achieve. However, if one chooses to engage in systemic thinking as a means of solving wicked problems, behaviors such as those recently suggested by Bob Doppelt are appropriate. First, always strive to perceive and understand the systems of which you are part. Second, hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your actions on those systems. Third, abide by society’s long-held universal moral principles of equity and justice. Fourth, acknowledge your trustee obligations and take responsibility for the continuation of life for current and future generations. Finally, free yourself from harmful beliefs that no longer fit today’s world – for example, self-centeredness, profit maximization, political partisanship, and so on.

It is the difficulty of practicing systemic thinking that I believe will keep us from solving our wicked problems. Systemic thinking requires each of us – leaders and followers – to think and learn, to act in behalf of the common good, and to change our minds when we’ve been shown a better way or when we’ve been proven wrong. 

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