Why are some business problems difficult to grasp? How do you tackle complex business problems?
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing change leaders today?
These are some of the questions I answer in an article included in this year’s annual IT strategy publication — Digital Leaders 2014: Drive Your Business Forward — by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.
Leading Change in Uncertain Times
My team’s job is to solve business problems. However, 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, those leading change 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.
The Wicked and the Clumsy
An example of a wicked problem is delivering a response to antisocial behaviour.
For instance, 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 a wicked problem has 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 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 change leader that advocates a clumsy solution takes the collective view and does what is needed to make some progress.
Troubled families is about doing something very different. Something that hasn’t been done before and where there is no perfect solution. Therefore, if we are to succeed in today’s corporate environment we must adopt a different paradigm for leading change. One that considers the views of each stakeholder and manages uncertainty.
But how is this done? What needs to change?
Let us take a look at the organisation since this is where we are likely to find an answer.
Fear and Ego
Many organisations portray a command and control approach to leadership. This model of management impedes creativity and decision-making during times of change and uncertainty.
For starters command and control:
- limits engagement and commitment,
- inhibits communication,
- obstructs course correction, and
- assumes the leader knows best.
In short, these problems are self-made but also self-solved.
Most leaders achieve their position by merit of their knowledge and experience. However, when faced with uncertainty it is inevitable to encounter problems requiring skills or competences we do not possess.
This can trigger feelings of inadequacy.
Often our response is to resist change, impose rigorous process or make a show of strength. We assume an acknowledgement of our shortcomings undermines our power and position.
It does not.
However, such irrational behaviour does lead to an undervaluing of advice given by employees and peers and lessens the chance of leading successful change.
Fear and ego stops success in its tracks!
The better alternative is a collaborative approach where we invest in relationships. One where senior managers focus on motivation, support and leadership.
In 2012 I attended a very entertaining presentation on leadership by Professor Keith Grint. He spoke of three forms of authority and three different approaches to power:
- Command – physical power
- Management – rational power
- Leadership – emotional power
Coercive or physical power is needed in crises: the individual leads.
For example, when a problem or situation threatens the viability of a project. Decisive action is needed and people respond to a call to action.
Rational power is best used when there is little uncertainty.
For instance, when something doesn’t perform as expected. The team’s role is to solve puzzles for which there are always answers.
Wicked problems are different because they cannot be solved by individual or team. These problems span many institutions and affect many social groups.
Solving wicked problems — such as antisocial behaviour — is about engaging people and working together in a common purpose. Indeed, we cannot coerce people into following when dealing with wicked problems because the very nature of the problem dictates that people must want to help.
What’s more, many people want to contribute within their organisations but are constrained by the limits of command and control. Leaders must recognise this encumbers and stifles innovation.
We do not need to have all the answers or to take the credit. Indeed, if we were to open our eyes we wouldn’t have to look far for solutions because they often reside in the people, processes, and environment we operate.
Finding clumsy solutions to wicked problems is not about control. It is about sponsorship: connecting ourselves to something important and lending it our credibility. Sponsorship is about holding up an idea or cause as important and not simply filling a seat in the project boardroom.
Leading change in uncertain times needs proactive support from senior leaders.
Sponsorship provides that positive influence: seeking out advice from people and empowering them to implement creative solutions with authority.
However, to build internal confidence, stimulate cross-boundary cooperation, and spark new ideas we must transition from commander to sponsor and meet the team.
Talking is fundamental to human relationships. So why are so many leaders unseen by their employees?
When we talk to people we share our attitudes, goals, preferences and judgements. In other words, we present to our audience our own way of looking at the world.
Disagreement is unavoidable. We think our arguments are completely logical and rational and theirs garbled and unreasonable.
In truth, they think the same of us!
Therefore, we must learn to see the problem through their eyes. In understanding and identifying with the interests, needs and perceived options of each solution-seeker we acknowledge their worldview.
We learn to see the same situation from a different perspective.
What’s more, we learn to stitch together an inelegant solution that combines everyone’s understanding of the problem. Progress is made.
Leading Change In Uncertain Times
Leading successful organisational change in an uncertain and changing world demands that we do something different:
- ask questions not provide answers,
- shift from commander to sponsor,
- build relationships not structures,
- give employees permission to engage in constructive dissent,
- learn to live with ambiguity,
- step into other people’s shoes, and
- implement inelegant — clumsy — solutions.
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 considers 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.
Our job is to create a climate that enables people to unleash their potential. With the right environment there are few limitations to what people can achieve.
Want to know more about leading change?
Great. But can I ask what you’ve been doing up to date?
Creative Commons image courtesy Ben Matthews.