Diversity of Solutions to Wicked Problems

When Rittel and Webber (1973) first defined wicked problems, they concluded that leaders cannot reasonably identify a single solution to a given social problem. They observed “that diverse values are held by different groups of individuals—[so] what satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, [and] what comprise problem-solution for one is problem-generation for another,” and in this situation, “there is no gain saying which group is right and which should have its end served” (Rittel and Webber 1973, 169). While factors that increase the diversity of the population served by planners complicates the work of designing solutions, imposing a solution or treating a heterogeneous population as homogeneous is not associated with the design of solutions as judged good by diverse subpopulations.

When a solution is defined such that one subpopulation finds it satisfactory but another finds it abhorrent; implementation leads to some being winners and others being losers. Game theorists call such situations zero-sum games. Many scholars who study wicked problem solving recommend planners attempt to design non-zero sum solutions to wicked problems. In these solutions, all individuals or populations perceive the solutions as advantageous. Those scholars recognize that the win may be disproportional for some, but this outcome is generally regarded as preferential to a zero-sum outcome. Those scholars also concur that the greater the number of choices and the greater diversity offered in the solution(s), the greater the non-zero sum potential of the solution(s).


Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730.