Global Management Academy U.K.
Global Management Academy U.K.
Fionn Kennedy
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The term ‘Wicked Problem’ is used by Keith Grint* to refer to problems which may seem intractable, or almost impossible to resolve. In the global political arena, these may be problems like the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, or Northern Ireland, or in the scientific context, Global Warming may be considered a ‘wicked problem’. Grint considers the U.K. Health system (which he calls the National Illness System) as a ‘wicked problem’ insofar as no one appears willing to pull the plug, or at least to admit there is even a plughole to open.   From Grint’s perspective, Wicked Problems are those which demand leadership, whereas Tame Problems, for which conventional (or innovative) problem resolution techniques can be applied, are the domain of Managers.  Real leadership thus requires individuals who can ask the difficult questions such as… “How did we get into this mess?” What do we need to sacrifice to get out of it?”, or alternatively, “If we can’t get out of it, what are we going to do to survive?”    Examples of Wicked Problems at Work Let’s consider some examples of wicked problems.   Wicked Problem 1 Your business is having difficulty competing in the difficult economic climate. The company is struggling to generate the earnings to deliver better dividends for shareholders.  Employees have not received a pay rise in the past 2 years, and motivation is at an all-time low.  You lack the financial resources to incentivise your employees, and any attempts at introduce ‘at risk’ components  in salaries, to create significant performance reward options, are met with resistance by trade unions.  With this problem, we might want to ask of the unions, “How can we improve employee motivation if we do not have the funding for across the board pay rises?,” With the Board, we may want to ask the question:… “Do we need to divest some of the company’s traditional lines of business, (and forego dividends for a few years) in the pursuit of new growth opportunities, and improved workforce motivation and commitment?”.    Wicked Problem 2 Your health trust is tasked with providing more ‘at home’ care for elderly citizens in the community. Your budget has been frozen for the past 2 years, and you know no additional funds will be forthcoming in the next budgeting round. The ageing population in your area is increasing, and the demand for residential places is growing annually. The residential care infrastructure is generally in poor condition, and your capital budget requests have not been approved. Public opposition to the closing of residential care homes is highly vocal and political damaging. The public health system has experienced annual restructuring for the past 25 years in the U.K.  How may political leaders have been willing to ask the difficult questions? Questions such as… “How can we get people to set aside the funds to pay for their aged care in earlier years?”  An even more wicked question perhaps might be, “What can we do to encourage children to take care of their aged parents at home?”. Grint argues that in this context of ‘wickedness’ (or intractability), the leaders’ role is:  to firstly accept that the problem  is wicked and that they do not have the answer; to encourage the stakeholders to face up to their responsibilities (often a very unpopular task); to help people understand that the ‘answer’ to the problem is going to take a long time to construct and that the answer will only ever be ‘more appropriate’ rather than ‘the best’; to help people understand that the solution may require constant effort to maintain.  Tips for Handling Wicked Problems  Fortunately as managers, most of our problems are not wicked ones, and we can apply best practice problem solving and management techniques to resolve them. However, it is also likely that you will be faced with some wicked problems, and the reality is that authoritarian leadership will not work with wicked problems. As a manager tackling such wicked problems, we suggest you employ the following strategies: Act with Integrity - this means not putting personal interests (political, commercial) or otherwise ahead of the best interests of the stakeholders. Ask the right questions – the answers may not be obvious (every wicked problem is typically a symptom of another problem ) or easy to digest, but by asking the difficult questions, you will have a better chance of negotiating a viable solution; Develop Consultative solutions – which are essential in situations of increasing complexity and uncertainty; Promote collective intelligence  - provide the information that will enable people to make mature and informed decisions (this takes time and effort); Facilitate trade-offs– “if you require this benefit, you can’t have this facility as well”. Leaders need to have excellent negotiating skills. Promote collective responsibility – responsibility for major decisions about an organization or systems's future need to be shared by all concerned stakeholders; Act to prevent problems becoming crises – procrastination is the mother of all catastrophes; Help people live with uncertainty – and tolerate anxiety, but take actions to prevent panic. Build in accountability – involvement in decision making also means holding people accountable and and managing the consequences of failure (the leader will need to stand behind penalizing decisions; Display empathy – know how your people see the problem if you want to solve the problem. To paraphrase an observation by American intellectual, Walter Lippmann, we may say that in dealing with wicked problems, “the goal of leadership is not to get people to think alike. The goal of leadership is to get people who think differently to act alike”. Learn more about leadership with Global Management Academy’s online leadership Courses. * Note: Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership and Management at Warwick Business School




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