Become future-proof by focusing on wicked problems

Dan Sly
Fri 26 Oct
Become future-proof by focusing on wicked problems

Welcome to the latest in a series of brief interviews with guest experts from KnowledgeBrief’s Innovation Programme, providing a window into the experts’ latest ideas and new advice for executives.

Following the Innovation Day in September, Dan Sly, Professional Learning Advisor at KnowledgeBrief (KB), interviewed Dr Martin Rich (MR) from Cass Business School to discuss wicked problems.

KB: What is a wicked problem?

MR: Imagine that it’s 2030.  Apple has just brought out a new line of clothing, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by a generation of textiles which integrate neatly with cloud computing.  Sainsbury’s has just offered some extra features on its Internet shopping app which works on your fridge, so long as your fridge runs Android.  HSBC has officially told you that you no longer need to remember your PIN because instead you will be able to identify yourself to merchants’ terminals using a distinctive hand gesture.  And your grouchy 40-year-old manager still insists on communicating with you using email, even though that seemed a bit dated already when you started university in 2018.  What sort of skills do you need to work in this world, and to adapt to the future that you just can’t predict?

This is an example of a wicked problem: they are complex, their resolution is unpredictable, and crucially there is no one right answer.  If you’re confronted with the challenge affecting drones and defence, you could arrive at a number of possible outcomes, but the real test of your leadership and your ability as a decision maker is the process through which you weigh up options, gather information, and get to grips with complexity.  The term ‘wicked problem’ originated in town planning, notably in a paper by Rittel and Webber.  As a management concept, it was adopted by Keith Grint from the University of Warwick who argues that the ability to deal with this type of problem is at the heart of the ability to be an effective leader.  As a philosophical point, one of the biggest challenges for many managers is recognising that problems are wicked and ill-defined and open-ended and that you don’t necessarily address them by trying to reduce them to predictable, clearly-bounded, and what you might term ‘tame’ problems.

KB: What are the key challenges managers are facing?

MR: Now imagine another scenario, one which I won’t claim credit for because at Cass Business School we have employed professional scriptwriters and novelists to take a backstory and to build some interesting management challenges around it.  You’re a manager in a big engineering company which supplies components for all sorts of products and which dabbles in a whole range of businesses.  As such you are keen to provide components for drones because you want part of this expanding market.  One thing that your employer doesn’t do is defence work, and this has proved a good strategy, for example, in attracting investors with an ethical approach.  Until, that is, one of your components was discovered in a weapons-capable drone.  Do you take the view that this is just a routine component, and it’s no different from a supplier of stationery finding that their pens are used by the army?  Or do you argue that you need to stick to your business’s values and stop this component from being used for defence?  How do you manage the reputational issues around this?  And in doing so how do you avoid getting involved in an ongoing disagreement between the innovative, creative people and the more traditional engineers within your own company?

Another concept that is related to the emergence of wicked problems is that of VUCA, an acronym referring to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.  Perhaps the best summary that is relevant to current managers is by Bennett and Lemoine from the Harvard Business Review in 2014: it fits on a single page and neatly brings together all these characteristics and what they mean for contemporary organisations.  This is one of a range of management concepts which deal with the fact that organisations are evolving in unpredictable ways, and that the tools that managers have used for many years to plan within predictable organisations don’t necessarily work anymore.  Confronted with a VUCA environment, managers face the same dilemma as with wicked problems: do you attempt to simplify the problems and decisions, and thereby possibly lose some of the subtlety and even make misguided decisions, or do you look at all the issues and embrace complexity.

KB: What advice would you give to executives, based on your findings?

MR: Something that links the VUCA environment to the whole area of wicked problems is that the competencies needed from managers go beyond learning predictable and repeatable techniques.  To be able to deal effectively with wicked problems takes practice and reflection, which is one reason that we devised the scenarios like the ones above and invite our students to discuss them.  Challenges such as the drone-component example, which involves technology and corporate social responsibility, as well as internal politics and external reputation, provide a great way to practise dealing with uncertainty.

With thanks to Dr Martin Rich, Senior Lecturer at Cass Business School.

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