Peeter Selg - How to Solve Wicked Problems?


Even though wicked problems, such as the immigration crisis and poverty, have no straightforward solutions, they can still be managed. All they demand is a leader that does not offer answers, but makes their subordinates ask the right questions, says Peeter Selg, Associate Professor of Methodology in Political Science at Tallinn University.

Problems in governance can be divided into three categories: simple, complex and wicked problems. Most issues facing those in charge are simple and technical by nature. It can be said there is always a concord in what these issues mean and how they are to be managed.

Solving simple problems demands a specialist. These problems have clear borders and a clearly framed solution. All routine actions in governance are simple: from distributing documents and pensions to filling routine acts at country borders. Administrative leadership and bureaucratic organisations are very effective in dealing with such issues.

Complex problems have one basic difference, when compared to simple ones: even though all involved parties agree on the meaning of the issue, there is a strong disagreement as to how it should be managed. The parties could be in competition with each other or hold different values, which means there is no single solution that fits the problem. Nevertheless, complex problems are still manageable by nature. Their difference from simple problems is qualitative, not quantitative.

The prerequisite for solving complex issues is cooperation among specialists. An example would be solving education policy issues. Even though education research has decreed that the quality of education (when measuring the difference in the input and output of students, rather than the sheer number of graduates) is most helped by investing in teacher education, the Government in Estonia has clearly focused on developing real estate.

At the same time, everyone – the government that invests in real estate, education researchers, educators and parents – agree that the quality of education must be improved. The main problem is the difference in their visions for the solution.

Qualitatively, wicked problems differ from simple and complex ones by having no agreement among the involved parties on neither the meaning nor the possible solutions of these issues. By principle, there can be no specialists, and any scientific and methodological view of the issues is mostly useless.

Classical wicked problems include global warming, terrorism, poverty and sustainable social politics in an ageing society. Lately, the migrant crisis in Europe has been added to this list. Not only do we lack a simple solution to this issue, we have long since lost track of the reasons to it and the exact meaning of the crisis. Only one thing is clear: we cannot ignore the issue, it must be managed somehow.

How to recognise a wicked problem? They are indeterminable. The modus operandi to handle them changes mid-process. Their meaning becomes clear “post-fact”, or after finding the “correct solution”. Solving them usually brings along more wicked problems, but it is impossible to stop solving them. When decision-makers make a wrong decision, they will be punished; at the same time, it is almost certain that any decision toward a single solution will always be wrong.

Research in politics, governance, as well as organisation management shows that even though wicked problems are not solvable, they are governable. Wicked problems do not need a leader that comes up with an answer, but one who makes the subordinates ask the correct questions. At the same time, the subordinates will probably be disappointed in such a leader. A leading leadership researcher Ronald Heifetz from Harvard University has said the role of the leader is to disappoint people up to a level, which they can still tolerate.

When looking at wicked problems, it is important to understand that highly regarded qualities such as decisiveness, determination and clarity can impede rather than help along, as the background and the essence of the problem are constantly changing. Thus, let’s stop being so decisive and clear when facing wicked problems such as migration crisis or population ageing.