Doug Marshall – August 11, 2020

Tame Problems v. Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems is a term first introduced in 1967 by C. West Churchman and again in 1973 by Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. When Rittel and Webber published their paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in 1973, they looked at problems as either “tame” or “wicked.” Since there are two types of problems they determined the approaches to solving these problems cannot be the same. Before embarking on solving a problem it is critical to identify the problem as tame or wicked. I must confess, the term Wicked Problem is new to me yet at the same time I had the sense I was working on a different type of problem solving in the discipline of Business Value Protection Planning. I just did not have a name for it.

After reading the short paper written by Rittel and Webber several times I discovered a book, published in April of 2020, on the subject of Wicked Problems. The book’s title is “Exploring Wicked Problems – What They Are and Why They Are Important.” The authors are two PhD’s, Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth.

It is my intent to write a series of short articles or posts about Wicked Problems and how it changes the way we approach Business Value Protection Planning. I will attribute back to Rittel/Webber and Bentley/Toth as much as possible to facilitate any investigation you might want to do outside of these articles and to source my observations. (Rittel/Webber = R/W and Bentley/Toth = B/T)

Let me be clear. This is not my research. It is my effort to frame Business Value Protection Planning (really any type of financial planning) as a wicked problem and to address the challenges directly related to the planning we do at Marshall+Viliesis for the benefit of Business Owners.

It is worth reading the B/T book if you have the time yet few of us have as much time as we would like. For the benefit of the business owner and the owner’s advisors I’ll extract from the book the most relevant points.

Tame Problems – These are problems where the solutions are fairly straightforward. A flat tire is an example of a tame problem. Most people who know how to change out the flat tire for a working spare will solve the problem in much the same way and the same sequence. Boiling water for tea is another example of a tame problem. R/W and B/T describe these problems as those with straightforward solutions. Some more examples, a Jigsaw puzzle is a tame problem. Printing a business buy/sell agreement is a tame problem, creating the language in the document is not.

Wicked Problems – “They are complex, messy and unpredictable.”  – (B/T writing about R/W in the Introduction) – Sometimes they are defined as problems too difficult to solve and problems which are hard to define. We cannot solve the wicked planning problems by ourselves which can lead to disagreement about the solution. Most any type of planning is a wicked problem. We will see examples of this later. The R/W paper lays out ten characteristics of Wicked Problems. I’ll touch on them all in subsequent posts.

If you are curious and want to explore further yourself into the world of Wicked Problems there just happens to be a website – – The B/T book is made up of essays posted on this website.

NOTE – Wicked Problems can be very large and on a societal, even global scale, take for example hunger, clean water and poverty. Planning for a business is much smaller in size yet the dynamics and challenges are similar. Think of the problems you encounter or hear about every day. Start to consider, are they Tame or Wicked Problems and why.

Taming Wicked Problems – The rest of this series will be devoted to the topic of Taming the Wicked Problem of Business Value Protection Planning. Both R/W and B/T say Wicked Problems can never be turned into Tame Problems but they can be Tamed to some degree to make them more manageable. We cannot solve Wicked Problems with Tame Solutions. The first step is to recognize Business Value Protection Planning is a Wicked Problem. Once you recognize this reality you can start to define the problem and define your goals. It will manage your expectations. Consider also this from the R/W 1973 paper, “identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be.” This is an excellent definition for a Wicked Problem Solving Mindset. 

Value and Protect – I am excited to roll up my sleeves and tackle this project. Now there’s a context for Business Value Protection Planning, it is the Wicked Problem. Now I know when I see a poor planning design for a business owner it is because the advisor was using Tame Planning Rules. Now I can explain why a large majority of business owners are frustrated when it comes to their own value protection planning. When you understand your business value protection planning from the perspective of the Wicked Problem it transforms how you work toward a solution.

To business owners I say, you need to know the value of your business today and what drives its value. Don’t just guess, go through the exercise of having your company valued. The objective is to protect the value of the business. Instead of using traditional solutions which apply rules for Tame Problem solving we will move ahead and plan using a Wicked Problem mindset. With this viewpoint we will start to see a system emerge giving you the business owner a better planning outcome with far less frustration.

This series will also serve as a complement to the short book Peter Viliesis and I are finishing up which is titled, “Value and Protect,” another project we are excited about. 

Attribution Notes – 

When referring to the Rittel and Webber paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” it will be from the publicly available paper, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), Pager 155-169 © Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam-Printed in Scotland.

When referring to the book “Exploring Wicked Problems – What They Are and Why They Are Important.” by Joseph Bentley, PhD. and Michael Toth, PhD. I will also include a page number from the current Kindle Edition. When they cite an outside source it will be attributed accordingly.

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