Is Event Design a Wicked Problem?

Post authored by Cynthia Hornketh, CMM, VP, Experience Design, Experient

event-designI’ve heard a few university professors suggest design thinking is best when applied to wicked problems. I’m “all in” when it comes to design thinking, so not knowing exactly what they meant, I was curious to learn more about wicked problems and how they relate to meetings and events. First off, though, I do reside in Boston … I’m not using the word “wicked” in this context to mean “awesome.” And thankfully, the “awesome” slang has been mostly eliminated from our regional vocabulary.

The definition I’m focused on was introduced in social planning by 1973 by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber — two Berkeley professors whose article in Policy Sciences, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” named 10 properties that distinguished wicked problems from hard but ordinary problems.

Their definition is fairly complex and extreme. For the purpose of this article, a wicked problem is an opportunity or challenge that can’t be “solved” due to ever changing variables, interdependencies, and no ultimate test to measure success. Further, organizations addressing wicked problems have a tough time getting stakeholders to agree on what the problem is never mind what path or solutions to head toward. Today’s event designers can relate to and operate under the stress of the many defining properties identified by Rittel and Webber, but I don’t believe growing or redesigning an event needs be a wicked problem.

There are ways we can reliably address our challenges and opportunities.

I am particularly interested in interdependencies. I’m frequently involved in programs that navigate this challenge. Events involve many stakeholders with different values and priorities. How can a designer identify, untangle and address what is important to each stakeholder and guest segment without negatively impacting another?

One of our key methods is to encourage clients to include representatives from various stakeholder groups in a collaborative workshop we call our Innovation Lab. The conversations can get messy, but when we engage colleagues to share their understanding of the organization’s and the guests’ objectives, we find they can agree on opportunities and tactics to achieve the varying needs, and do so without creating new conflicts. We believe it is also crucial, at this stage, to define the organization’s brand promise and articulate the essence of the program through an organizing principle—then these insights and tools are used as guiding standards or unifying parameters by everyone involved in creating, marketing and producing the program.

empathy map

Empathy Map

Additionally, empathy maps and personas—devices for visualizing, understanding and humanizing our approach for designing events—can help determine our guests’ predominate values and reasons for attending the event.

With clear design criteria gleaned from these diagnostic conversations, we can optimize decisions and tactics that support an event built on shared, rather than competing, values and purpose.

Another point that sticks out in the wicked problems definition is the idea that there is no test to measure success. If you begin your event planning process by defining results, as noted above, then we can create instruments and strategies to test ideas, iterate, and measure results against your organization and guest objectives. And once we assess the results, we can advance and refine our approach for the next event.

Yes, we operate in an increasingly complex environment where the intel, processes and decisions used in the past don’t always address the problems we face today. But after evaluating the Rittel and Webber definition, reviewing how we’re applying design thinking, human-centered design and exemplary logistic execution to launch and reinvent programs, I conclude that at times our problems are wicked—as in seemingly “evil”—and our opportunities are “awesome,” but event design is not a wicked problem.

How have you applied design thinking to your programs?

A mission of our experience design team and our Innovation Lab is to move events beyond the “zone of nothing special.” If you’re interested in learning more about these design thinking tools and our Innovation Lab, please contact

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