If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

If you haven’t heard of “wicked problems” before it’s a concept that you should familiarize your self with. Simply put, a wicked problem is a problem that can’t be stated or defined without attempting to solve it. Even then your definition will be woefully incomplete. Wicked problems are recursive. Every attempt to solve the problem yields a better definition of the problem. They are the metaphorical onion where peeling back every layer produces another layer.

Wicked problems were introduced as a way of defining the sorts of issues dealt with in the social sciences. There the human element provides a source of infinite complexity. Issues such a poverty and race relations are the archetype of wicked problems. Virtually every response to solving the original problem creates more problems itself as well as informing future approaches. The concept defines the difficulty in providing well-defined, finite solutions that are simple and easy to apply.

The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.

There are ten classical characteristics of wicked problems to consider in deciding if your problem is indeed “wicked”. Defining the wicked problem is difficult to impossible.

1. You don’t know when to stop solving the wicked problem (because its never solved, just solved well enough, or you simply run out of time).
2. No proposed solution can be complete, but can be defined in terms of quality (good or bad, good enough).
3. Testing solutions to the wicked problem is inconclusive and limited.
4. Every solution to the wicked problem to a problem has consequences and implications. These are unpredictable.
5. The set of potential solutions to the wicked problem do not form a well-defined or bounded list.
6. Each wicked problem is different.
7. Each wicked problem is connected to other problems.
8. There are multiple explanations for the causes of wicked problems. Some of these explanations are conflicting.
9. Wicked problems have consequences if things are wrong, thus solutions are expected to be right the first time. Failures are punished due to consequences.

Over time we have come to realize that science and technology has its own cadre of wicked problems. I first encountered the concept in code development. Steve McConnell made the observation that code development is wicked in his classic book “Code Complete”. You can’t even anticipate all the problems you’ll have to solve in developing a code until you start to code. Deep aspects of the code will unveil themselves in the process of implementation and testing.

In code development this often takes the form of refactoring where the original design of part of the software is redone based on the experience gained through its earlier implementation. You understand the use of and form that the software should take once you’ve tried to write it (or twice or thrice or…). The point is that the implementation is better the second or third time based on the experience of the earlier work. In essence this is embracing failure in its proper role as a learning experience. A working, but ultimately failed form of the software is the best experience for producing a better piece of software.

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them

This principle applies far more broadly to scientific endeavors. An archetypical scientific wicked problem is climate change not simply because the complexity of the scientific aspects of the problem, but also the political and cultural dynamics stirred up. In this way climate change connects back to the traditional wicked problems from the social sciences. A more purely scientific problem that is wicked is turbulence because of its enormous depth in terms of physics, engineering and math with an almost metaphysical level of intractability arising naturally. Turbulence is also connected to a wealth of engineering endeavors with immense economic consequences.

This brings me to the practice of verification and validation with uncertainty quantification. This is most certainly wicked as well. One of the clear signs of wickedness is the PCMM (Predictive Capability Maturity Model). PCMM has evolved continuously toward ever-greater complexity as experience grows without any limits in sight. Other frameworks for wrangling the complexity of V&V exist with entirely different structures.

We easily start to see the entire engagement with V&V is inherently wicked. The more you do V&V and solve problems using its principles, the more complex and deep the topic seems. This makes V&V appear to be more daunting than it actually is. Experts in V&V with a deep knowledge have difficulty in pulling themselves back to a novice’s perspective. Ultimately this is counter-productive as it makes the topic difficult to approach once it matures.

Another aspect of wicked problems that manifests with V&V is cultural and political consequences. V&V intersects with the culture of engineering and science in aggressive ways. V&V pushes the cultural norms of conducting science and engineering. Ultimately V&V collides with the political side of things with decision-making or resource allocation. Once this occurs you’re down the proverbial rabbit’s hole, and complexity explodes. You will then understand intuitively that you have found a wicked problem.

Maintaining the perspective of wickedness as being fundamental is useful as it drives home the belief that your deep knowledge is intrinsically limited. The way that experts look at V&V (or any other wicked problem) is based on their own experience, but is not “right” or “correct” in and of itself. It is simply a workable structure that fits the way they have attacked the problem over time.

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.