Conklin and Neumeier popularized the word ‘wicked’ problems. In multidisciplinary product development teams there is a class of problems even ‘beyond’ wicked problems: double-wicked problems. In order to explain, let me introduce what wicked problems are.

Wicked problems was coined by Rittel and Webber in 1973, in a reaction to the (by many considered) too rationalistic approach on designing of H. Simon. They missed an important aspect in their world of social planning, and wrote an almost grim article showing that scientific approaches to solve social problems inherently fail. Ever since the notion of wicked problems was adapted to fit in a wider perspective, like in the illuminating contributions of Buchanan (1995), Coyne (2005), Conklin (2006) and Visser (2008). I like to summarize their work alongside the dimension whether a given problem is considered by someone as ‘tame’ or ‘wicked’ problem’:

  • Tame problems are problems that can be analyzed, understood, in order to devise the best solution, like solving puzzles and algebra. Tame problems not necessarily are simple: ‘tame’ merely suggest there is only one solution. People who frame problems as ‘tame’ often will resort to math and modeling.
  • Ill-structured problems are a class of problems in which interdependencies exist that cannot be separated. The effort to solve one aspect of an ill-structured problem may initiate new ones, or make other aspects worse. It is impossible to optimize one aspect, without a trade off on other aspects. The fundamental consequence is that there only can be compromises, discussed with a normative stance: what is better, what is worse. People who frame problems as ill-structured likely will resort to lists, whereby alternatives are compared against a range of requirements.
  • Ill-defined problems are a class of problems in which contradictory requirements exist and the formulation of the problem inherently corresponds to the formulation of the solution. It is impossible to define the problem in such a way that it does not impose a specific sort of solution. The other way round the formulation of the problem is subject to redefinition and resolution in different ways again and again, when potential solutions become manifest. When in the process of designing a house sketches are made, often the original list of requirements will change, simply because these manifestations provide new insights.
  • ‘Wicked problems’ are, contrary to many discussions, not only problems that are ill-structured and ill-defined. Within the original notion of ‘wicked’ problems of Rittel and Weber (1973) another dimension was relevant: they discussed “the problems of open societal systems”. Any policy in social planning inevitably will affect the social system and thereby the original problem. Consider a social housing plan in a deprived area: any enacted proposition results in new unexpected issues. One never will be sure whether the ‘best’ solution is found. This often overlooked aspect of the original work of Rittel and Webber implies that once humans are involved, there is fair chance the problem is wicked! People who consider problems as wicked will resort to experimenting and ‘learning while doing’ as opposed to simply run a ‘grand plan’.

One of the most persistent findings in my research on multi-disciplinary teams is the extreme indeterminacy that members in NPD teams experience in their daily practice. The indeterminacy is not only caused by the boundaries among specialists. Rather it is a fundamental aspect of doing multi-disciplinary NPD. Specialization implies that tasks are allocated to persons; products are disaggregated in modules and parts; and problems are divided into manageable components. However, problems are seldom confined to one part, and are seldom mono-disciplinary. For example, the cooling of a printer requires electrical engineers to decide on fans and cabling; mechanical engineers to position and mount these fans; software engineers to write the code of the behavior of these fans in relation to the printing process; designers to provide slots in the covers for the supply and discarding of air; sound specialists to reduce the inherent noise, and so on. Choices of one specialist inevitably impact the work of others. Aims collide and compromises have to be made.

Consequently, apart that problems are ‘merely’ ill-defined, ill-structured and  / or wicked, for multi-disciplinary teams problems are also wicked in another dimension. Wicked because activities of specialists are intertwined and nobody can truly foresee the consequences of the activities together.

If teams are working on new products and services, the problem setting is double-wicked: wicked2 problems.

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