Leadership practices for ‘wicked’ problem solving

… and how they follow from wicked problem characteristics

Last Sunday (May 15, 2016) Brook Melville posted an article on Leadership practices for ‘Wicked’ problem solving at Forbes.com. Melville (McKinsey’s first Director of Knowledge Management) had interviewed Dr. Kate Isaacs, who works in biomedical innovation and leadership. Isaacs listed the lessons she had learned from studying how certain leaders had catalysed treatment breakthroughs for the AIDS crisis. Isaacs makes a distinction between well-bounded, short-term issues and wicked problems. The first don’t need large-scale collaborative solutions, the second do. She emphasized that wicked problems are gaining in importance as a result of: (1) proliferating networks interlink problems further and further afield; (2) connectivity and information transparency increase awareness of interlinking problems; (3) democratization empower more people to advocate or oppose company actions. I would add that most of the problems requiring technical fixes have either been addressed or proved to be more wicked than we thought. If you haven’t noticed: roughly since 1960 the world is running out of fixable problems.

The 6 lessons on leadership    … are: (1) bring the whole system to the table, including the multiple stakeholders; (2) avoid being a ‘solution hero’, so build and sustain trust before starting to think about specific solutions; (3) preserve the interest and will of the group to keep going, e.g. by “ensuring short-term wins for all, on the way to the longer term system solution”; (4) build on-going, adaptive learning into the process; (5) chose roles appropriate to the situation, sometimes leading, sometimes not; (6) make sure you do not inadvertently undermine the trust you have painstakingly build and maintained.

Wicked problems and their characteristics       The article by Melville reminded me of a post I wrote almost three-and-a-half years ago, entitled Resolving wicked problems: rules of the game. In it I provided broad guidelines for problem-resolution processes derived from first principles It made me wonder if I could fit in the concept of ‘leadership’ leadership roles from the characteristics of wicked problemsand how this might illuminate the 6 lessons identified by Melville and Isaacs. What we see is that ‘leadership’ has 4 tasks, some of them simple but none of them easy: (a) it must acknowledge that some problems are wicked; (b) it must admit or ascertain being responsible for an effective response; (c) it must correctly manage a problem-resolution process that is up to the task of addressing a wicked problem; (d) this involves inviting and motivating the stakeholders concerned.

Leadership roles follow from resolution process        Let me illustrate how the leadership roles follow from the characteristics of wicked problems and the process required to address them. “Avoid being a ‘solution-hero'” follows from the fact that in the case of wicked problems ‘early limits’ should be avoided with regard to both the problem space and solution space. It also follows from that notion that solutions must emerge from the collective  insight of concerned stakeholders. (see also two other posts: Managing wicked problems: a primer and It’s a wicked problem, stupid!). The practice of “chosing roles appropriate to the situation, sometimes leading, sometimes not” follows from the need to “seek ownership among multiple stakeholders”. I leave it to the reader to identify other instances where practice follows from principles.

Some final comments      I liked Melville’s article because it illustrates how important wicked problems (AIDS, sustainable energy supply) can be addressed. What it fails to recognize is how this follows from first principles as have been developed by Churchman and Rittel in the 1960s and 1970s, both when it comes to characterizing wicked problems and developing a ‘systems approach’ to address them. I think that’s important, because it can really help practitioners, whether in leadership or more supportive roles, to respect first principles and get better, more effective results. And that´s what it is all about. For more information see my post on The systems approach.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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