Summary: The fourth in Stewart Mennin's Wicked Issues series of blogs, this time on the subject of Where Do Wicked Problems Come From?. Watch AMEE Social Media and mailings for the next webinar. Description:

Where do Wicked Problems come from? What Can we Do About Them?

Stewart Mennin, PhD.

Where do Wicked Problems come from?
When I was a boy, my family had a rule that applied to everyone in the house.  At 6:00 pm we had to stop whatever we were doing and get ready for dinner. For me it meant I had to stop playing outside, come home, wash my hands and face, perhaps put on clean clothes, and comb my hair.  And, of course, be seated in my assigned chair.  My grandmother would stop knitting and turn off the radio, wash up and come to the table.  My mother, father, sister, grandmother and I all followed the same rules each in our own way.  Rules guide individual behaviour and create system-wide (family-wide) patterns in everyday life and in nature (Figure 1).   

Figure 1.  Complex adaptive systems (CAS) arise from interdependent interactions among multiple agent.  System-wide patterns appear that influence the subsequent actions of the agents.  Patterns can be understood as the result of individual behaviors guided by simple rules. 

Wicked problems are complex patterns that also arise by the same mechanism described above.  They are problems that are defined differently from different perspectives; are context dependent but patterned across contexts; and are impossible to solve completely (Rittel and Webber, 1973; Mennin, 2019a; Mennin 2019b).  For example, persistent resistance to curriculum change among faculty members led to wicked problems with patterns of conflict that persisted for years.  During the 15 years that the University of New Mexico School of Medicine had parallel curriculum tracks, there was a pattern of tension between the advocates and participants of both tracks.  Both sides wanted to keep their track separate and thus very little crossover of educational innovation between tracks occurred (one track was community-oriented and problem-based and the other was a more traditional teacher-centered track (Kaufman, 1985; Kaufman, Mennin, Waterman,, 1989).  The leaders of each track didn’t want to ‘contaminate’ the educational ‘experiment’ with methods from the other track.  Also, there was a strong sense of pride, identity and allegiance to whatever track you supported.  The simple rules were, “stick to your track, promote positive results, follow the rules generally”.   Students and faculty members stayed stuck for 15 years.  Finally, when the two tracks did merge, there was conflict over what parts of each track should be kept in a new hybrid curriculum.  Instead of forming a new curriculum de novo that would emerge from new simple rules, the faculty added parts of each curriculum together, not unlike a business merger, and kept the simple rules relevant for each track.  The resulting pattern was one of confusion and conflict.

What can you do about how wicked problems? 

First, you apply the CDE model and pattern logic and identify the three interdependent that give rise to wicked problems (the Container (C), Differences (D) and Exchanges (E). 

Figure 2.  The CDE model.  C stands for the open container that holds the agents together so they can interact; represented by the two purple semicircles around the agents.  The D stands for the differences among the agents (the colored geometric shapes in the Figure. The E stands for the interdependent exchanges of energy among the agents, represented by the dashed lines.

The container (C) can be anything that holds the agents together.  Examples include a law, value or belief that guide individual behavior. It can also be a physical boundary.  In either case, the boundary, i.e., the container is open and permeable to outside influences.  Differences (D) are people, conditions, ideas, facts, etc.  Exchanges (E) are any form of communication and exchange of energy.  The CDE model and pattern logic identifies any aspect of the CD and that is accessible to  (Eoyang and Holladay, 2013).

Wicked problems are defined differently from different perspectives and so there are many different views of what holds the agents together (C) so that differences can interact (E). Shifting any one of the CD or E will affect the path, speed and shape of the new emergent pattern.  You cannot know in advance what the new pattern will be, but you can decide after it emerges if it is something you wish to support and reinforce or something undesirable, in which case you enter another cycle of Adaptive Action.

The second way to influence the conditions that lead to self-organization and to the subsequent emergent of a new pattern is through iterative cycles of Adaptive Action using three simple questions; What? So What? and Now What? (Eoyang and Holladay, 2013; Mennin 2019a; Mennin, 2019b).

In summary, wicked problems are patterns that arise from individual behaviors guided by implicit and explicit simple rules.  These patterns can be shifted by modifying one or more of the simple rules that lead to them and by iterative cycles of adaptive action.

Eoyang, G. H., & Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization.     Stanford, California: Stanford University press.

Kaufman, A., Ed.  Implementing Problem-Based Medical Education: Lessons from Successful Innovations.  New York: Springer, 1985

Kaufman, A., Mennin, S., Waterman, R., Duban, S., Hansbarger, C., Silverblatt, H., Obenshain, S.S., Kantrowitz, M., Becker, T., Samet, J., Wiese, W.  (1989). The New Mexico  Experiment:  Educational Innovation and Institutional Change.  Academic Medicine 64:285-294.

Mennin, S. (2019a). Tame your Wicked Issues in Medical Education: Part 1: What Has You Stuck?
How to Get Unstuck with Adaptive Action.  Retrieved from

Mennin, S. (2019b). Tame your Wicked Issues in Medical Education: Part 2: Wicked issues in
medical education are not simple.  Retrieved from

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences,
4(2), 155-169.