I think, by all means, the original definition of wicked problems is outdated and outright problematic. It actually surprises me that by then the idea of small experimental interventions was so unimaginable.

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Lovely articulation of the idea, Ethan, and the schematic helps distil the key points. I'm wondering how you think we could run A/B tests or randomised controlled trials on populations to test proposed policies (where policy planning is a wicked problem, for example). Where would you fence the idea of using rapid experimentation to solve wicked problems?

From a systems pov, problems occur when the goals of subsystems are at odds with each other. Romania banned abortion to up the birth rate, but child and maternal mortality shot up because of unsafe and illegal abortions, orphanages swelled in size, official birth rate stayed out.

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The approach you're describing sounds very much like the plan/do/study/act cycle, an approach which has been used in Quality Improvement for decades.

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Law of Requisite Variety.

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Ethan, this is very insightful and helpful. It is also highly relevant to an especially wicked problem I am devoting all my energies to: in a world shaped by escalating, interrelated and often unpredictable mass disruption events and trends, how do we mobilize to “prepare for whatever unfolds“? ‘We’ being interpreted at an individual, organizational or societal level…

My only suggested nuance to add to your thoughts in this post I inherited from my late business partner and dear friend who would often encourage me not to frame everything as a problem but instead as an opportunity.

In this context, I think there are “wicked opportunities” which can only be seized if we respect their complexity and non-linearity and get on top of them fast. Indeed, there are wicked opportunities that, if not seized in a timely manner, can turn into a truly wicked problem or set of problems.

For example, the breakthrough of achieving rapid, effective MRNA vaccines just when we needed them could have equipped us to crush COVID-19 world-wide if we had vaccinated everyone without regard for disparities of wealth, education or privilege. Instead, we acted too slowly and haltingly, inoculated too little of the globe’s population and descended into a maelstrom that made public health a partisan issue in a polarized world, allowing the virus to mutate, morph, multiply and magnify our risks.

I do have a question to ask you, based on your reading of the literature. When researchers analyze the times when people have solved wicked problems (or opportunities), are there some emerging practices, principles or capabilities that they have typically drawn upon? Or are all wicked problems and their solutions like Tolstoy’s unhappy families?

I am very pleased to have found and subscribed to your newsletter and to have joined this conversation. Thank you.

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