Wicked solutions to wicked problems


John Harvey

John Harvey

John Harvey

More than ever, foundations seeking a global impact are being called upon to fund solutions to the problems of the world – poverty, climate change, clean drinking water, failing education systems and more. What more and more funders are finding is that no one foundation can solve these problems: it takes collaboration with others – not just other funders, but also local and federal government officials, non-profit organizations in the community, and the business community as well.

What are the strategies for funders in the face of such overwhelming and daunting problems? How can funders make the global impact they seek through collaborating with others? One strategy that the Council on Foundations has begun utilizing in its Global Grantmaking Institute, a professional development workshop for global grantmakers, is the ‘wicked problem’ frame.

So, what are wicked problems? Wicked problems are ‘large, messy, complex and systemic, and include many of the most challenging issues we face’. The ten properties of a wicked problem, as developed and defined by University of California at Berkeley social science scholars Horst W J Rittel and Melvin M Webber, are:

1.     It is impossible to write a well-defined problem statement about wicked problems.

2.     Wicked problems have no stopping rule; the search for solutions never ends.

3.     Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is a matter of judgment.

4.     Solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, and measurement is hard.

5.     Solutions to wicked problems have consequences that cannot be undone.

6.     Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions.

7.     Every wicked problem is unique, without precedent; thus experience does not help you address it.

8.     Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem; they have no single root cause.

9.     A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about the problem, its cause, and solutions.

10.  Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions.

Overcoming wicked problems is no easy task for the philanthropist. It takes deliberate leadership to identify what philanthropist Julian Robertson calls ‘wicked smart solutions to wicked hard problems, backed by relentless persistence’. The wicked problem frame can apply to philanthropists by fostering a community of candour, a commitment to authentic community solutions, providing creative new leadership models, and embracing the courage to take on the long-term challenges of complex problems.

By identifying wicked problems, and beginning to grapple with smart networked solutions through collaboration, increased dialogue and a future orientation, philanthropists can make a greater impact with their philanthropic dollars and achieve real change.

John Harvey is managing director for global philanthropy at the Council on Foundations

Tagged in: Collaboration Global Grantmaking Institute Global philanthropy Wicked problems

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