Tackling a Wicked Problem

4 min readJul 15, 2021
Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Our Co-Founder, DK, recently finished reading this great paper about wicked problems. Due to its density he published his notes for people who don’t have time to read the entire paper, and just for you we’ve condensed his notes down even further to give you a quick overview of how we’re trying to tackle the wicked problem of social media. We believe that social media qualifies as a wicked problem because:

1. Wicked problems, by definition, are inherently different than any other problem ever encountered — a wicked problem is a problem where the answer to the problem does not already exist.

Social media is new, its effects still being studied and newly understood every day. We have not encountered the specific problem of social media before (even if you can think of comparable problems), and therefore no solution already exists.

2. Wicked problems are complex, rather than just complicated — that is, the problem cannot be removed from its environment, solved, and returned back without affecting the original environment.

Social media has become so intertwined with our lives and societies that to remove or change it will have significant consequences.

3. There is no clear relationship between cause and effect.

We cannot point to one specific thing about social media that caused one specific problem we’re all talking about. Instead, there are many aspects of social media that have varying nuanced effects, and it’s unclear how the problem of social media would be impacted by changing any one thing.

4. A key characteristic of a wicked problem is that it is almost always an unsolvable problem.

No matter what solutions we create, and even if we were able to create the perfect solution for a moment, new challenges and problems will continue to crop up, and we will have to continue to work toward new and better solutions.

So how does droplet foresee taking on this wicked problem? Well let’s look at two different types of people who usually handle problems — managers and leaders.

Managers deal with problems in the realm of “deja vu” or “seen this before” and are best suited to addressing tame problems systematically according to a priori knowledge.

Leaders deal with problems in the realm of “vu jade” or “never seen this before” and are best suited to addressing wicked problems by having the wisdom and experience to know that before they can take any action they must first ask:

What is the question or questions we should be asking to address this wicked problem?

The leader’s role with a wicked problem is to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers, because the answers may not be self-evident.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

You may be wondering, how do you figure out which are the right questions to ask, and what happens after you ask them? Well…

Leadership is not a science but an art — the art of engaging a community in facing up to complex problems. Wicked problems require the transfer of authority from an individual to the collective because only collective engagement can hope to successfully address a wicked problem.

Here at droplet, we love asking questions, and are always trying to find the right questions to ask, but we truly do believe that only collective engagement can hope to successfully address a wicked problem. The answer will not come from Silicon Valley, The Center for Humane Tech, or from anywhere. It will take all of us, working together, to keep finding better ways.

We hope to be a leader that engages and empowers the community, giving voice to the ideas, concerns, hopes and dreams of all members. Together, we can take on this wicked problem, but if we wait on others to solve the problem for us, we shouldn’t be surprised when nothing gets better.

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