LEADERSHIP INSIGHTS

Become future-proof by focusing on wicked problems

Dan Sly
Fri 26 Oct
Share
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.

Related Post

Insight

Manager as Mentor - SMARTER Goals

How many of us keep our well intentioned New Year Resolutions? Our desires to give up, do more, be better …It’s highly likely that our desires are rarely kept even until the end of January. Setting a clear goal helps to create measurable steps for what we want to achieve, but it seems we are not accountable to ourselves like we are to others and without accountability, we are very likely to push working towards our goals to the bottom of our to do lists.

Jane Savage

Fri 05 Jul

Insight

What does successful mentoring look like?

Often a potential mentee won’t have taken the time to process their thoughts and formulate a plan for what they want to get out of a mentor relationship. They come to you like a hungry child ‘Feed me. Feed me your wisdom, I want to absorb it all now’. Maybe you have been a mentor before, you know what’s needed so off you go, following the same path as before. But has anyone stopped to consider if the path is going in the right direction?

Jane Savage

Thu 06 Jun

Insight

KnowledgeBrief Well-being Day: Supporting Young Lives Vs Cancer

Today, KnowledgeBrief hosted a day dedicated to Well-being in support of our Charity Partner of the year, Young Lives Vs Cancer. Through this well-being day, the KnowledgeBrief team hopes to raise essential funds for this amazing charity.

Izzy Litton

Fri 26 Apr

Testimonials

Trusted by over 200 organisations

2000+ people are already learning with KnowledgeBrief

Coventry and Warwickshire Mind

"As the line manager of a senior team member enrolled in the Senior Leader apprenticeship, I've witnessed firsthand how the functions, skills, study elements, and learning have enhanced the knowledge of the individual. While I have seen how the course benefits the individual, it also has benefited the organisation through an improvement in the breadth of leadership skills, policies, procedures, and strategic effectiveness. I believe our partnership with KnowledgeBrief will strengthen our organisation, and I will be encouraging other staff to participate in the apprenticeship."

ManpowerGroup

"KnowledgeBrief are best in class for their Leadership and Management training, highly professional and extremely knowledgeable coaches"

Wiltshire Council

"My Apprenticeship through Wiltshire Council with KnowledgeBrief has enabled me to have a wider understanding of management principles. The guidance given was invaluable to enable me to obtain my chartered management qualification with Distinction."

Wiltshire Council

"Throughout the course, I was guided and supported by skilled Personal Learning Advisors and attended informative workshops. By gaining my CMI qualification in leadership & management, I have been able to advance my career to the next level in management."

AVIS Budget Group

"They are incredibly easy to work with and focus entirely on what’s required for success in your organisation and for your employees."

CLIC Sargent

"I would recommend KnowledgeBrief to any organisation looking for impactful leadership and management training. "

AVIS Budget Group

"In every aspect of our relationship with KnowledgeBrief, from sales to accounts and the Professional Learning Advisors, we encounter passionate and engaged people."

Tata Chemicals Europe

"The benefits the programme brings to you in your role, and throughout the organisation are incredibly valuable. I would recommend the Level 5 to anyone in a management or leadership position."

Flogas

"It doesn’t matter what stage you are at in your Leadership or Management career, a Level 3 or 5 course will make you a better leader."

JPI Media

"I recommend anyone who is in a management or leadership role to take the course. It’s both challenging and rewarding and can only augment your existing knowledge and skills. You will grow as a leader if you take this course."

Equip your employees with the skills to increase results

If you would like to discuss how we can create your Leadership and Management Training Programmes, please get in touch