On the corner -Wicked problems

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By Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief


Got any “wicked problems”?

Lemme tell you, if you work, serve, attend, or soldier in The Salvation Army, you’re confronted with more ‘wicked problems’ than you care to address.

I’m talking about the kind of problem batters struggled with when facing Sandy Koufax’s “wicked” fast ball.

Our congregations are “socially complex.” We are multicultural with wide age differences, significant variation in worship style, often conflicted with the means used to “serve suffering humanity,’ and highly complex in relation to leadership, roles, background, experience and goals. We often explore problems and issues informally with friends after the meeting and, most intensely, during corps council. These discussions rarely get us past our traditions.

We engage in a lotta talk. This is valuable—if it moves us toward a decision without feelings of futility and fragmentation.

Undoubtedly, you’re wondering what in “heaven’s name” are ‘wicked problems’?

For sure, they don’t have anything to do with wickedness per se. But, dealing with wickedness in a society does present a wide array of ‘wicked problems.’

Jeff Conklin, in the first chapter of his book titled Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, helps us understand what this is all about. The chapter is titled: Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. He makes it clear that you simply cannot successfully address a ‘wicked problem’ in the same manner that you would try to solve a “tame” problem.

Tame problems can be dealt with through the traditional linear problem-solving method taught for centuries. You know—(1) state the problem clearly; (2) assemble the necessary data; (3) analyze the data; (4) develop hypotheses; (5) test the hypotheses; (6) formulate a solution; (7) implement the solution.

Horst Rittel coined and defined the term “wicked problems” as having these characteristics:


1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are neither right nor wrong.

4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one shot operation.”

6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.


Let’s see how this would work with a fictional ‘wicked’ Salvation Army corps problem.


The Forrest Gulch Corps has been in existence for 89 years. Once, it thrived and had a rich tradition. Unfortunately, attendance and soldiership have now diminished to 50–75 members attending the morning meeting and only a handful in attendance at the evening service.

The Army initiated a major drug rehabilitation program just a mile or two from the corps, and, after discussing a plan with corps officer, the center’s officer began bringing over several van loads to the morning service. Sometimes, the men and women clients at the Rehab Center have more in attendance than the corps soldiers.

Two members of the corps council have requested an agenda item titled “Relations with the Rehab Center” for the coming meeting. Several council members are prepared to suggest that the clients should not be allowed to come and should stay in their own facility. They fear the young people are in danger. Several others believe that the Army mission requires this kind of commitment.


Truly, a ‘wicked problem.’


The corps officer led the discussion during which the council tried to understand all of the implications of the problem. He led them away from the traditional linear problem solving method.

Quickly, it became evident that there were a number of different constituencies with varying point of view. The bandmaster said his drummer came from the center, had been converted and sought soldiership. The home league secretary, a mother of four young boys, said these people were poor models for her sons who had picked up some bad language and the smoking in the parking lot was a detriment to corps growth. This position was confronted by another member who talked about bad language on the playground and smoking in every parking lot in town.

Trying to understand the problem, they continue to struggle on the periphery of the issue—some wanting to return to past practices and others asking questions like, “What’s the Army all about? I’ve got some ideas about what we could do to help the Center’s program.”

As several members offer various ideas, they begin to recognize a number of important points: that there’s no single solution but that changes can be made that provide a win/win for the multiple points of view; that any decision can be revisited in the future; that there are varying strengths and weaknesses of ideas that are neither right nor wrong, just better or worse; that you “can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but each has unintended consequences that may spawn new wicked problems.”

They now truly begin to understand the full dimensions of the problem and think through a number of scenarios as the discussion progresses. Conklin calls this kind of thinking opportunity driven—ideas are fleshed out, examined from all sides, and finally a decision is made. Their shared understanding has led to a rational decision that, while not everyone agrees with it, each participant has a shared commitment to the outcome.


So—got any ‘wicked problems?’  Whataya gonna do?




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