IT Architecture and Wicked Problems

A wicked problem is one that, for each attempt to create a solution, changes the understanding of the problem. A wicked problem exhibits one or more of these characteristics:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution. Despite your best efforts you don’t actually know what the problem really is and developing solutions only shows up more problems.
  2. Wicked problems have no ‘stopping rule. That is to say if there is no clear statement of the problem, there can be no clear solution so you never actually know when you are finished. For wicked problems ‘finished’ usually means you have run out of time, money, patience or all three!
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong. Wicked problems tend to have solutions which are ‘better’, or maybe ‘worse’ or just ‘good enough’. Further, as most wicked problems tend to have lots of stakeholders involved there is not usually any mutual agreement about which of these the solution actually is.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique. Because there are usually so many factors involved in a wicked problem no two problems are ever the same and each solution needs a unique approach.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation’. You can only learn about the problem by building a potential solution but each solution is expensive and has consequences.
  6. Wicked problems have no single solution. There may be lots of solutions to a wicked problem any one of which may be right (or wrong). Its often down to personal (or collective) judgment as to which one to follow or adopt.

By reading the list of properties that wicked problems exhibit you can easily see that many (or even most) large and complex software development projects fall into the category of wicked problems. Especially those which involve many stakeholders, multiple systems and difficult social, political, and environment challenges (e.g. such as building a nations social security or health system) or re-engineering an enterprises core systems whilst still trying to run the business.

I think that the really interesting and challenging roles out there for us IT architects are in tackling some of the wicked problems that many large and complex systems engineering projects contain. In my experience it is very often not just the technological aspects of the problem that needs to be addressed but also the social, political and economic aspects as well. I think the real challenges and also key roles that IT architects will take as we move into the next decade are in bringing new and creative approaches to solving these wicked problems. I’m currently preparing a lecture to be given at a UK university next month around this theme.

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3 thoughts on “IT Architecture and Wicked Problems

  1. […] Kerrie Holley is a software architect and IBM Fellow. The title of IBM Fellow is not won easily. They are a group that includes a Kyoto Prize winner and five Nobel Prize winners, they have fostered some of the IBM company’s most stunning technical breakthroughs―from the Fortran computing language to the systems that helped put the first man on the moon to the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, the first instrument to image atoms. These are people that are big thinkers and don’t shy away from tackling some of the worlds wicked problems. […]

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