Wicked Problems

Let’s talk about wizards and muggles. And no, not the Dursley kind of muggle. Jazz musicians in the 1920s coined the term “muggle” to describe the masses of “unimaginative adults” unable to riff with the free-flowing form of jazz. Those who were capable of creating musical magic were wizards.

But wizards and muggles don’t only exist in the world of Harry Potter or jazz; they abound in the realm of problem-solving.

Muggles solve kind problems, and wizards solve wicked problems.

Kind vs. Wicked Problems

Kind problems have repeating patterns, rapid and accurate feedback, and well-defined rules. Think about learning a language. If you use Duolingo to learn Spanish (like yours truly), you solve kind problems. The vocabulary, grammar, and sentence construction follow a clear structure. If you make a mistake, the app tells you right away.

Wicked problems have non-obvious patterns, delayed or inaccurate feedback, and unclear rules. Wicked problems are like learning a language in a foreign country. Speakers have accents and utterances to complicate pattern recognition, and slang breaks formal rules. Feedback is uncertain, as you can’t know if your conversation partner has understood what you tried to articulate.

Donning the Wizard’s Hat

Some people spend more time solving kind problems, and others on wicked problems. But everyone is capable of both muggle work and wizard work. The challenge is knowing when to don the wizard’s hat and when to leave it off.

Kind problems might be muggle work, but they aren’t easy. Complex professions dwell in deterministic domains with immense complexity, such as computer networking, air travel, and golf. Kind problems are ripe with opportunities to fail, but you will succeed if you navigate the process skillfully. For instance, playing chess is a kind problem that people spend a lifetime mastering. Yet, despite chess’s seemingly infinite complexity, each turn has only 30 potential moves. A wizard hat will do no good here.

As several AIs have proven with chess: Many kind problems can be solved by machines. Wicked problems, however, remain a distinctly human endeavor requiring creativity. The most revealing trait of wicked problems is that their solution becomes more apparent the more you try to solve them. Think about poverty, climate change, and education—if we had a simple solution, they wouldn’t be a problem.

Defense Against the Dark Arts

There’s no playbook, framework, or thinking tool for solving wicked problems. But four things can give you a fighting chance:

  1. Systems Thinking. Jazz players understand a piano’s intricate “system,” so they can manipulate the keys to fit whatever rhythm emerges during a show. Likewise, you can create diagrams for whatever systems you’re working in to understand how various components are related.
  2. Diverse Teams. Groups with diverse backgrounds and perspectives have the best chance for success. To create a diverse team, you must define common values—such as humility, learning, and bias for action—so everyone can be comfortable failing forward.
  3. Agile Methodology. Release imperfect solutions quickly to get feedback. Learn and iterate to improve the solution.
  4. Lateral Thinking. Wicked problems require more of a mindset than a skillset. Ask and seek answers to ambiguous questions or play with riddles that don’t have precise steps for solving so you grow accustomed to intellectual discomfort.

Humans are muggles, so it’s natural for us to solve kind, muggle problems. But we have the capacity for greater challenges, and wicked problems give us the chance to unleash our inner wizards.