The term was coined in the late 1960s by someone born in 1919, (Ackoff) it isn’t contemporary street speak, or even in Norman Mailer’s words ‘Beatnik’; rather, in this manifestation of the word it is the opposite of ‘tame’.
(Ackoff might be ‘messy problems’ while I mean Rittel here)
- Put it this way, a tame problem can be contained and tamed, like a lion in a cage.
- Chess is a tame problem. Science problems are tame too.
- But in the social sciences most issues are complex, hard to fix, shifting, and a lot of bother as they appear impossible to resolve and whatever you try impacts on the problem.
- Like trying to catch water in a sieve?
- It is vital for me to understand that a problem is ‘wicked’ before I try to tackle the thing with a creative problem solving technique. Not meaning to be flippant, but I don’t figure out a chess move by finger painting – though a mind-map or brainstorming might help?
- Or not?
- I am hopeless at chess because it doesn’t respond to my intuitive approach to everything.
- Is the problem ‘messy’?
- Probably, if it requires finger painting, even Flipcharts and PostIt Notes.
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber
Rittel and Webber’s (1973) formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics, perhaps best considered in the context of social policy planning.
According to Ritchey (2007) the ten characteristics are:
1) There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
2) Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3) Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
4) There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5) Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
6) Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7) Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8) Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9) The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10) The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa
(i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
The problem is never solved definitively
ABOVE FROM WIKIPEDIA 9FEB12
Messes and social messes
Russell L. Ackoff wrote about complex problems as messes: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.” 
Extending Ackoff, Robert Horn says that “a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.”
According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:
Ackoff, Russell, “Systems, Messes, and Interactive Planning” Portions of Chapters I and 2 of Redesigning the Future. New York/London: Wiley, 1974.
- No unique “correct” view of the problem;
- Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
- Most problems are connected to other problems;
- Data are often uncertain or missing;
- Multiple value conflicts;
- Ideological and cultural constraints;
- Political constraints;
- Economic constraints;
- Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
- Numerous possible intervention points;
- Consequences difficult to imagine;
- Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
- Great resistance to change; and,
- Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.