What are wicked problems? Can sustainable community development be considered a wicked problem? If so, what value does this this lens provide us, what changes in policy and practice does it imply and what is preventing international non-governmental organizations from addressing wicked problems?
In a perspective essay in the forthcoming October 2016 edition of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, noted scholars in the field of planning and complex problems Brian Head and Wei-Ning Xiang, building on earlier works (Xiang & Wei-Ning, 2013 & B. W. Head & Alford, 2013), argue for the expanded use of Adaptive, Participatory and Transdisciplinary (APT) approaches when dealing with “wicked problems” (Brian W. Head & Wei-Ning, 2016). In this brief blog post, I will attempt to reflect what this might mean for development NGOs.
International Community Development as a Dilemma for Traditional Project Management
Anyone who works in international community development understands the unique challenge of planning in such a complex and unpredictable socio-political context. Ika and Damiam (2014) offer some reason why international development projects are so complex from a project management perspective (Ika & Damian, 2014).
- International development projects cover almost every sector of project management application
- International development projects are public sector projects
- International development projects are international projects
- International development projects share managerial/organisational challenges with conventional projects
- International development projects are different and more complex: unique goals and way of organising
- International development projects are different and more complex to manage: unique context and institutional challenges
- Different types of projects emerge with time and with an increasing complexity
- Overall, international development projects are an extreme case of conventional projects
Above Image from (Ika & Damian, 2014)
International Community Development as a Wicked Problem
The term “wicked problems” was first uttered in 1967 by W.F. Churchman at a seminar he had organized to investigate whether lessons learned from the space program could be utilized to solve the various social problems tearing at fabric of American society at the time (Skaburskis & Andrejs, 2008). When presented with a list of differences between social and scientific/technical problems by Horst Rittel, Churchman responded, “Hmm, those sound like “wicked problems” – kicking-off an entire field of study. Rittel, later refined and summarized the list in a now famous 1973 article in Policy Science by Rittel and Webber called “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning” (Rittel & Webber, 1973).
Rittel and Webber’s 10 characteristics of wicked problems (quoted in B. W. Head & Alford, 2013)
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- Wicked problems have no “stopping rule” (i.e., no definitive solution).
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every (attempted) solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; the results cannot be readily undone, and there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error.
- 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.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
- The planner has no “right to be wrong” (i.e., there is no public tolerance of experiments that fail).
Ok, anyone working in community development should relate pretty quickly to the lists by both Ika and Hodgson as well as Rittel and Webber, so how does the lens of “wicked problems” help? Well, according to Head 2008, traditionally, social planners have “coped” with complex social and ecological problems by “cherry picking” problems “[dealing] with manageable elements today, while recognizing that there will be other aspects to tackle tomorrow. However, because of their amorphous and interdisciplinary nature, wicked problems require an entirely different approach.
According to Xiang (2013, p.2), [b]y examining a wicked problem as a whole through a panoramic social lens rather than a scientific microscope, and working with it through an open and heuristic process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation, the APT approach [Adaptive, Participatory, and Transdisciplinary] promises to be efficacious in fostering collaborative behaviour, reducing conflicts, building trust among all stakeholders and communities involved, and ultimately producing better and more satisfying results.
To be fair, the NGO community hasn’t been entirely in the dark when it comes to debates about the shortcomings of traditional project management models. In fact, as Ika and Damian (2014) point out, “The poor results of projects from the 1950s through the 1980s have led to disillusionment with the traditional approach and widespread calls to change or even reject outright the traditional [project management] approach in [international development] and adopt instead what have been described as ‘process’ projects.” The champions of process projects, most notably David Korten (1980), describe them as long-term projects that become more impactful over time through a process of trial and error (Korten, 1980).
According to Korten “the learning process approach calls for organizations that have little in common with the implementing organization geared to reliable adherence to detailed plans and conditions presented favored in the blueprint approach. Its requirement is for organizations with a well developed capacity for responsive and anticipatory adaptation – organizations that: (a) embrace error; (b) plan with the people; and (c) link knowledge building with action.”
Now, Korten was writing about this in the 1980s so surely NGO’s and other actors in community development have adopted these practices? Sadly, INGDOs are still largely failing to address the wicked problems of community development. There is a longstanding and growing argument that INGDOs are not doing enough to address the world’s social and ecological problems and remain too close to donors and governments to fully utilize their competitive advantage of being neither governments nor private sectors (Banks, Nicola, David, & Michael, 2015).
What is really needed is for INGDOs to engage with communities for the long-term and work as partners to help tease apart and address the complex relationships of power, policies and perceptions in an adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary (APT) way. However, despite widespread agreement on the importance of this this kind of partnership, very few INGDOs actually do it because of their failure to take a critical stance on issues of power (Ika and Hodgson, 2014), bias towards a single sector (Romeo, 2003), a particular technological solution (Samper & Jimena, 2012), faddism (Mansuri & Rao, 2004), failure to spend adequate time and resources needed to mobilize and engage the community and focus on implementing the priorities of funders vs. that of communities (Power, Grant, Matthew, & Susan, 2003).
Recommendations for INGDOs
- Being able to implement an APT approach requires high-levels of programmatic freedom which is often compromised by our relationships, in particular funding sources but also political relationships. If we want to truly address wicked problems we need to develop funding and partnership models that allow for the kind of freedom independence they require
- The traditional “project” or “contract” approach, focused on addressing just one or two sectors for a 3-5 years is too narrowly focused and short-term to address wicked problems. An APT approach requires that INGDOs become skilled in facilitating broad-based participatory planning that engages stakeholders in not only identifying and prioritizing project but more importantly, engaging stakeholders in a thorough analysis of issues in a holistic, transdisciplinary manner.
- The role of participatory monitoring and evaluation must be elevated beyond just being accountable to donors to an active process of clarifying and redefining people’s understanding of the issues and behaviors bound-up in wicked problems. In essence, monitoring and evaluation should be viewed as a tool for the social construction of reality.
- NGDOs and community workers must promote a culture of self-critical awareness which promotes bottom-up learning among individuals and within institutions.
For more about this topic, read the related blog post: Breaking-out of the Piecemeal Project Approach: The Importance of Holistic Community Planning
If you are interested in the ideas and concepts discussed in this post, you’ll enjoy the following courses in our online certificate program at Colorado State University. Development and the Politics of Empowerment, Approaches to Community Development, Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, Community Mobilization, Community-Based Organizing,
Banks, N., Nicola, B., David, H., & Michael, E. (2015). NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort? World Development, 66, 707–718.
Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2013). Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711–739.
Head, B. W., & Wei-Ning, X. (2016). Why is an APT approach to wicked problems important? Landscape and Urban Planning, 154, 4–7.
Ika, L. A., & Damian, H. (2014). Learning from international development projects: Blending Critical Project Studies and Critical Development Studies. International Journal of Project Management, 32(7), 1182–1196.
Korten, D. C. (1980). Community Organization and Rural Development: A Learning Process Approach. Public Administration Review, 40(5), 480.
Mansuri, G., & Rao, V. (2004). Community-based (and Driven) Development: A Critical Review.
Power, G., Grant, P., Matthew, M., & Susan, M. (2003). 7. Operationalising bottom–up learning in international NGOs: barriers and alternatives. In Critical Reflections (pp. 86–103).
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
Romeo, L. G. (2003). The role of external assistance in supporting decentralisation reform. Public Administration and Development: A Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, 23(1), 89–96.
Samper, J., & Jimena, S. (2012). Cross Sector Partnerships for Development in Colombia. The Annual Review of Social Partnerships, 2012(7), 10–10.
Skaburskis, A., & Andrejs, S. (2008). The Origin of “Wicked Problems.” Planning Theory & Practice, 9(2), 277–280.
Xiang, W.-N., & Wei-Ning, X. (2013). Working with wicked problems in socio-ecological systems: Awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. Landscape and Urban Planning, 110, 1–4.