Degrees of wickedness

Last updated on July 12th, 2021 at 09:23 am

Window blinds with some slats open and some closed, a metaphor for the degrees of wickedness of a wicked problem
Window blinds with some slats open and some closed, a metaphor for the degrees of wickedness of a wicked problem. Think of the slats as the wicked problem criteria of Rittel and Weber. A closed slat is a criterion satisfied; a partially open slat is a criterion satisfied to some extent. A wicked problem has all slats closed; a tame problem has at least one slat at least partially open. When only a few slats are open, the problem isn’t a wicked problem, but finding a solution might be very difficult. The number of open slates corresponds to the degrees of wickedness of most technical debt retirement project design problems. When even one slat is partially open, we can peek through the blinds, and use that information to pry open other slats.

In a recent post I explored conditions that tend to make designing a project to retire technical debt a wicked problem. And in another post I noted some conditions that tend to make designing a project to retire technical debt a super wicked problem. But not all technical debt retirement project design efforts are wicked problems. “Wickedness” can occur in degrees. Designing these projects can be a tame problem, especially if we incurred the technical debt recently. In this post I explore degrees of wickedness in retiring technical debt. I propose a framework for dealing with technical debt retirement project design problems that are less-than-totally wicked.

The degrees of wickedness of a problem

As a quick review, here are the attributes of wicked problems as Rittel and Webber see them [Rittel 1973], rephrased for brevity:

  1. There is no clear problem statement
  2. There’s no way to tell when you’ve “solved” it
  3. Solutions aren’t right/wrong, but good/bad
  4. There’s no ultimate test of a solution
  5. You can’t learn by trial-and-error
  6. There’s no way to describe the set of possible solutions
  7. Every problem is unique
  8. Every problem can be seen as a symptom of another problem
  9. How you explain the problem determines what solutions you investigate
  10. The planner (or designer) is accountable for the consequences of trying a solution

Rittel and Webber held that wicked problems possessed all of these characteristics, but Kreuter, et al., take a different view, which I find compelling [Kreuter 2004]. Their view is that wicked problems and tame problems lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. A problem that satisfies all ten of the criteria would lie at the wicked end of the spectrum; one that satisfies none would lie at the tame end.

The ten criteria aren’t black-and-white

A close examination of Rittel’s and Webber’s ten criteria reveals that they aren’t black-and-white. We can regard each one as occurring in various degrees. For example, consider Criterion 1: “There is no clear problem statement,” which Rittel and Webber express as, “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.” Burge and co-author McCall, who was a student of Rittel, offer this interpretation [Burge 2015]:

Here by the term formulation Rittel means the set of all the information need [sic] to understand and to solve the problem. By definitive, he means exhaustive.

The original language of Rittel and Webber, with the interpretation of Burge and McCall, is black-and-white. But we can imagine problems that satisfy this criterion to varying degrees. That is, one problem formulation might have almost everything needed to understand and solve the problem, while another might have almost none of what’s needed. In some cases, the problem solver might make progress toward a solution by making reasonable assumptions to fill gaps. Or the formulation as given might be incomplete. If so, by working on a solution despite gaps, the missing information might reveal itself, or it might arrive as a result of other research.

A continuum hypothesis

For these reasons, I regard the degree to which a problem satisfies Criterion 1 as residing on a continuum. And I expect that we could find analogous arguments for all ten criteria. This “continuum hypothesis” doesn’t conflict with the definition of a wicked problem. Wickedness still requires that all ten criteria be satisfied absolutely. But how well the problem satisfies the criteria of Rittel and Webber determines its position on the Tame/Wicked spectrum. In other words, as we address the problem of designing a technical debt retirement project, we can consider the degree of wickedness of the problem, not merely whether a problem is wicked.

The degree of a problem’s wickedness provides useful guidance. If a problem clearly satisfies nine of the ten criteria, but not the tenth, according to Rittel and Webber, it would not be a wicked problem. Because solving it might be extraordinarily difficult, we would treat it as wicked with respect to the nine criteria it satisfies. We would use that information to guide our decisions about resource choice and resource allocation. The model of wicked problems provided by Rittel and Webber would be useful, even though the problem itself might not meet their definition.

And so emerges the concept of the dimensionality of wickedness.

The dimensionality of wickedness

We can regard the ten criteria of Rittel and Webber as dimensions in a ten-dimensional space. When we do, our “wickedness spectrum” becomes much richer. Maybe too rich, in the sense that its complexity presents difficulty when we try to think about it. But the concept of dimensionality of wickedness can be useful, if we consider each dimension as having a degree of wickedness. This enables us to choose problem-solving techniques that work well for wicked problems that owe their wickedness to specific dimensions. That is the approach of Kreuter, et al. [Kreuter 2004].

This suggests a framework for designing (or redesigning) technical debt retirement projects:

  • Deal separately (and first) with any parts of the technical debt retirement project design problem that are tame
  • Determine the importance of each one of a set of “nine indicators of wickedness
  • Use that information to determine which of the ten criteria of Rittel and Webber are most relevant to this particular technical debt retirement project design problem
  • Apply established approaches that account for the relevant criteria to formulate a project design

This program is too much for a single post. But I can make a start in my next post with descriptions of the indicators of wickedness. That post includes an examination of the implications of each of these indicators relative to the presence of each of the ten criteria of Rittel and Webber. The next step will be to suggest techniques for technical debt retirement project design problems that meet, to some degree, the criteria of Rittel and Webber.

Buckle up.


[Burge 2015] Janet E. Burge and Raymond McCall. “Diagnosing Wicked Problems,” Design Computing and Cognition 14, 2015, 313-326.

Available: here; Retrieved: October 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Kreuter 2004] Marshall W. Kreuter, Christopher De Rosa, Elizabeth H. Howze, and Grant T. Baldwin. “Understanding wicked problems: a key to advancing environmental health promotion.” Health Education and Behavior 31:4, 2004, 441-454.

Available: here; Retrieved: October 26, 2018

Cited in:

[Rittel 1973] Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Policy Sciences 4, 1973, 155-169.

Available: here; Retrieved: October 16, 2018

Cited in:

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