In 1973 Rittel and Webber published a paper in which they described a type of problem that they chose to describe as “wicked to contrast it against more “benign” or “tame” problems. This slightly peculiar choice of terminology was intended to imply that the problem is resistant to change, or intransigent, rather than immoral or malicious (although “wild“, “incorrigible”, or even “bleedin’ awkward” might have been more appropriate). These criteria essentially characterise wicked problems as dynamic, non-linear, and systemic rather than static or composed of linear causes and effects.You might not be familiar with the terminology, but we’re all familiar with the sort of problem that they describe. If a simple problem has a cause and solution we can all agree on, and a complex problem has a cause we can agree on and a solution that provokes disagreement, a wicked problem is essentially so complicated that we can’t even agree on the cause or nature of the problem, let alone the solution (more here). Some examples of this are poverty, crime, sustainability, (or virtually any political system you care to mention.)Unfortunately, when wicked problems occur, we tend to disagree on the nature of the problem, the nature of the action needed to deal with it and even whether the problem is even wicked in the first place. Any action tends to spawn a reaction elsewhere in the system which leads to unintended consequences.It can be a real problem if, as a consultant, you find that you have one of these problems to solve. You may have a client who has already determined what course of action they want you to take (even though you might not believe it to be effective) or they may want you to determine data for a problem that is essentially unknowable in any detail. I have certainly found that I’ve had difficulties determining specific measurable outputs for projects which really want me to solve these wicked problems. You can find that you’re skating on thin ice with the client where their understanding of what they want, and your understanding of what is possible just don’t match.So what can be done? How can we as specifiers or consultants address this so that at the end of a project, everyone is clear about what the deliverables were and whether they have been carried out? Or to put it another way, how can we reduce the wickedness in the problem to manageable levels? While we know that it is virtually impossible to “solve” a wicked problem as the resources and effort required are effectively infinite, underlying features and patterns doexist within these complex problems. There are, however; likely to be elements to the system that we can’t influence, or we don’t understand. We can reduce this complexity, and inform better decision making, but sending out a tender proposal saying that we have a “solution” is disingenuous at best, and may well lead to a disappointed client.

Three rules for tendering (and specifying) for wicked problems:

  1. Reframe the argument. Instead of talking about end points and solutions, try talking about decision making tools, informing future direction and introducing clarity. We might not be able to solve the problem, but we can define it more clearly.
  2. Specify closely and clearly. We need to define what is going to be done in terms of actions, not outcomes. I can honestly say that I will carry out a research project, training event, feasibility study, or marketing exercise. I can’t commit to doing anything outside my direct control (change public opinion, reduce waste, change government policy etc.)
  3. Be honest. A large amount of consultancy is carried out based on assumptions. This isn’t a problem as such – we know that we can’t measure many things directly, or that the natural variation is typically low (or the data just doesn’t exist). but we do need to be clear on what these are. That way, the client can pick apart the argument and see if the conclusions are still valid. If you’re lucky they might want you to do a follow up…

It is very easy to oversell when we’re looking for business, but the risk of a gigantic own goal goes up pretty rapidly as soon as we make claims we can’t back up in detail. If you argue your case correctly, a client will see the logical steps from action to outcomes – and it’s this argument that you’re essentially trying to sell in the bid.What do you think? Do you have an example to share when it all went really well (or wrong – everyone loves a horror story!) I’d like to hear your thoughts.+++Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here