Making Sense of Wicked Problems

How do we know when we have good answers to research questions, especially about wicked problems?

Simply and profoundly, we seek answers that make good sense. Every formal method, framework, or theory exists, in the end, to help us gain insight into a mystery. When researching wicked problems, choosing methods, frameworks, and theories should not be guided by tradition or disciplinary standards. Instead, our design choices need to consider more fundamental justifications that cut across disciplinary boundaries. A fundamental criterion for good research is that it makes good sense. By making this criterion our “true North” in wicked problems research, we can more easily find and justify integrating disciplinary (or cultural, or professional) perspectives that apply to a particular problem.

So, how do we make good sense in wicked problems scholarship?

Several theories of sense making have been proposed over the years and these mainly sort based on the social scale to which they apply, as shown in the figure below.

But I’m not satisfied with any of these theories for our purposes. Wicked problems occur across scales, and sense making is a kind of human cognition. We need a sense making theory that focuses on the cognitive process common to all scales of operation.

Here’s my working theory of sense making in formal inquiry settings investigating wicked problems:

Sense making is the integration of reasons into an argument for understanding and believing what something means in answer to a question.

This is illustrated in the following figure.

A working theory of sense making

This way of thinking about sense making becomes most valuable for formal inquiry when we unpack the theory in each phrase.

  • the integration of reasons”: Reasons are propositions, feelings, habits, or other cognitive content that are used to justify inferences consisting of further cognitive content. This justification process is a kind of integration, and it’s ubiquitous in all domains of human cognition; we are constantly trying to put concepts together. Integration is important to all sense making but there are particular kinds of integration key to particular modes of formal inquiry, such as integration across disciplines which is important in interdisciplinary research.
  • into an argument”: When reasons are linked together by justification relationships that result in a final inference, conclusion, or claim, we call the whole thing an argument. Arguments may appear as as verbal exchanges, but they can also manifest as point-by-point outlines, allegories and other forms of narrative, actions, and multi-media creations.
  • for understanding and believing”: The product of an argument is a claim, and claims initiate a call-and-response relationship with the listener. The claim ‘calls’ to the audience what it’s about and requests a two-fold response: do you understand me? Do you believe me? Understanding, here, is not only semantic interpretation but also affective activation: thinking and feeling. Only after we understand the claim can we decide whether or not to believe it. Belief, here, indicates a personal commitment to incorporate that claim into one’s view of the problem space. That is, the claim now becomes part of a legitimate way to view the problem.
  • what something means in answer to a question”: Once we’ve accepted this claim as part of the problem framing, it connects to other parts of the frame. These connections make these parts of the frame more relevant and therefore more available and more rich with implications for use in further arguments. This cascading richness undergirds how meaningful we find new claims. The particular connections activated help us discern the content of this meaning. In very rich problem spaces such as wicked problems, even a single finding can have layers upon layers of implications that make it a very meaningful answer to a wicked question—an answer that makes a lot of sense.

Whether or not an answer makes good sense depends upon the accuracy and legitimacy of the overall problem framing, the logic of the inferences made, the truth of the evidence used to support those inferences, and the authenticity of our understanding of, and belief in, these inferences.

There are several ways this theory of sense making can help us tackle wicked problems.

  1. We need to be asking ourselves and our stakeholders critical sense making questions that solicit good reasoning. The table below presents example questions.
  2. We can be smarter about choosing tools that enhance sense making, depending on which part of the sense making process we need help with.
  3. We can embrace an appropriate role for emotions, body-knowledge, and volition.
  4. We can feel more confident, knowing we’re not aiming for certainty but for good sense.
  5. Being able to explain how and why we aim for good sense and not certainty helps our stakeholders trust our work more.


How do you rely upon sense making in your research process? Does it look or feel like this, or like something else? What examples can you share?

To find out more:
See my public philosophy/art+science blog. Become an ongoing partner in this theory development!


“This blog post originally appeared in the Integration and Implementation Insights blog ( as “Making Sense of Wicked Problems” and is reposted with the author’s permission.”