Martin Webster explains that there is no single elegant solution when there is complexity.
Indeed progress is only made when leaders put aside their differences and work together in a common purpose. Here’s what Keith Grint taught me about solving wicked problems.
Clumsy Solutions to Wicked Problems
My team’s job is to solve problems. Yet, many business managers come to us with solutions in mind.
For instance, implementing a new business application or developing a website. Whilst the manager may not completely comprehend the problem they do have an answer.
The problem is resolvable since there is little uncertainty.
In contrast, some business leaders have much difficulty articulating what needs to be done. The problem is complex and often intractable.
Invariably these are wicked problems and characterised by uncertainty, the absence of an answer, and no clear relationship between cause and effect.
An example of a wicked problem is delivering a response to antisocial behaviour.
For example, the UK government’s “troubled families” project aims to reduce public spending by helping households who have financial and social problems. This includes the challenges of worklessness, antisocial behaviour, and truancy.
In a nutshell the troubled families project is about preventing problems not fixing them.
The great challenge for business leaders who carry out the vision is enormous. We cannot facilitate such change using traditional approaches. Since uncertainty and ambiguity are the way of the world today we must break from the norm and learn to manage uncertainty rather than attempt to remove it.
What’s more, because wicked problems have no known solution, multiple partial solutions are always needed.
Therefore we must put aside our inclination for elegance and opt for the clumsy solution.
Clumsy solutions to wicked problems consider the views of each solution-seeker.
For instance, the policy-maker may insist that data are stored in an electronic document and records management system whereas the service manager may prefer to use a line-of-business system
In contrast, the leader that advocates a clumsy solution takes the collective view and does what is needed to make some progress.
Wicked problems cannot be solved by the individual. Solving wicked problems is about engaging people and working together in a common purpose.
The clumsy solution acknowledges each perspective and then attempts to make them work with each other. This demands a different kind of leader. One that places greater emphasis on the way people behave.
Finding clumsy solutions to wicked problems is about asking questions not providing answers.
Do you work collaboratively to find clumsy solutions to wicked problems?
Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership at Warwick University. He spent twelve years at Oxford University and was Director of Research at the Said Business School and Fellow in Organisational Behaviour, Templeton College, University of Oxford.
Creative Commons image courtesy Marsha Brockman.