April 13, 2010

Worthwhile Resources for Wicked Problems

Posted in development at 9:22 pm by mknight1130

On Wednesday, March 31st, I went to a talk given by Bill Gilmore, called, “Applying the Concept of Wicked Problems and 7 Principles for Dealing with Them”. Bill defined a wicked problem as a problem that does not have a solution and can be hammered out indefinitely. Getting stuck in a wicked problem is analogous to a Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill, only to find it just rolls back further. The wicked problems are made even more complicated by their ambiguity and social interactions between various stakeholders. These types of problems are persistent in software development and in business. Fortunately there are some strategies to address wicked problems, such as documenting possible solutions and assessing their value. To wrap my arms around wicked problems I found 2 worthwhile resources.

NASA gives a down to earth explanation of wicked problems in its article “What is Wicked Problems” http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oce/appel/ask-academy/issues/ask-oce/AO_1-4_F_wicked.html . The article describes the older traditional linear approach, waterfall method, to solving problems. The article, a page long, goes on to explain how people solve problems in a more agile way, by defining and solving the problems at the same time. There is a link to learn more about the theory of Wicked Problems. This article is a good overview.

Another worthwhile resource from Unidata, http://www.unidata.ucar.edu/staff/caron/collab/wicked.html , gives alternative perspectives of wicked problems. Unidata is a program associated with an organization comprised of 160 universities, the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research (UCAR). UCAR supports education and resources in the oceanic and earth sciences, fields known for their complex problems. The Unidata page on wicked problems provides supporting evidence and criticism concerning the wicked problem approach. This is a balanced viewpoint.

I learned from my reading and the Bill Gilmore talk that problem solving and defining the problem at the same time, is one way to address wicked problems. It is not a perfect approach, but it is less likely to lead to a Sisyphus result. I intend use the knowledge while testing software and in some of the messiness of everyday life.


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