Messy Institutions for Wicked Problems: How to Generate Clumsy Solutions

36 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2014

See all articles by Steven M. Ney

Steven M. Ney

Jacobs University Bremen

Marco Verweij

Jacobs University

Date Written: January 20, 2014


In the past three decades, organizational studies have generated an impressive body of literature about how best to deal with complex and uncertain – or ‘wicked’ – policy problems. Each of these approaches aims to activate and mobilize the plurality of opinion and knowledge that wicked problems give rise to. However, contending methods go about this in different ways. Relying on Mary Douglas’ cultural theory, this paper outlines a method of evaluating and predicting the likelihood that any given approach will successfully tackle wicked policy challenges. On the basis of the theory’s notions of ‘clumsy solutions’ and ‘the hermit’, we devise two criteria for assessing the impact of any method on wicked problems. First, we argue that any given method is more likely to be successful the more it is able to activate the full range of partial solutions on offer. Second, we contend that approaches will be even more successful if they enable stakeholders to stand back from their own cognitive and social contexts. Of the twenty methods analyzed using these criteria, six approaches mobilized the full range of partial solutions available, and are therefore likely to solve wicked problems most effectively. In addition to these predictions, we argue that our cultural theory analysis offers a diagnosis of the reasons for why any given approach may fail to solve wicked problems. More importantly, our analysis also helps in developing therapies for improving these methods.

Suggested Citation

Ney, Steven M. and Verweij, Marco, Messy Institutions for Wicked Problems: How to Generate Clumsy Solutions (January 20, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Steven M. Ney

Jacobs University Bremen ( email )

Campus Ring 1
Bremen, 28725

Marco Verweij (Contact Author)

Jacobs University ( email )

Campus Ring 1
Research V, Room 40
Bremen, 28759
+49 421 2003451 (Phone)

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