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Article: Leadership and Wicked Problems by Chris Gale

Leadership and Wicked Problems

by Chris Gale

Among the many interesting contributions Keith Grint makes to current thinking about leadership is his exploration of the approaches or ‘style’ we might adopt in dealing with different types of problems at work. He uses a simple description of three sorts of problems – Tame, Wicked or a Crisis – to raise some critical and important questions about leadership practice, and our (in)capacity to adapt our approach in often very varied contexts. Briefly he reflects an understanding that –

Tame problems – are those we have seen before and are reasonably familiar with. Though they will require work and thought, we feel that we can rely on our current expertise and experience to see us through. These tame problems can be handled by using a Managing approach, basically using established management processes, systems, and techniques to ‘solve’ the problem.
For example we might notice that our staff use many different systems to manage their diaries and meetings, resulting in missed opportunities and confusion. Implementing a shared and common technical approach to this might be seen as a managerial solution to a tame problem. (if you’ve noted already that this might not be quite so simple – that will be one of the challenges we will get to below)
Wicked Problems – are those that are inherently much more complex, and ones we will not fully understand (or will see very differently from others). We may not have encountered this sort of issue before, (or have avoided it) and may not have the experience to draw on in dealing with the unfamiliar. These wicked problems require leadership – the need to get people together, both to understand the challenge in the first place, and to work with others to ‘make progress’ (these are not usually ‘solvable’ problems in the same way as tame ones might be)
Many of the more significant issues managers face in organisations are wicked problems in this sense, for example the need to change the way people work together, moving to partnership working with suppliers, reducing the impact of hierarchy, restructuring the organisation, and so on.
Crisis situations are those that are believed to require immediate action in order to avoid unwanted or disastrous outcomes. In this case ‘what we need’ is for someone to adopt a commanding role – directing action without much in the way of discussion or consultation, since there is not time. This is a culturally common and rarely uncontested assumption about crisis situations that is illustrated on a daily basis in the media and in political or business commentary.

Leadership Style?
In some ways this 3-type model reflects many managers ‘common sense’ view that we should adapt our approach or style to the situation we face, and there is a lot of value in that perspective, at least as a starting point in discussing the difficulties of developing a personal and coherent approach to leadership practice. However, there are some important questions that arise in considering this model, along with any other model that looks at changing ’leadership style’ to match differing situations.
How do we know which type of problem it is that we face? The difficulty here is that the label we attach to a problem will actually be largely subjective. What appears to be a tame issue to some, is another’s crisis, or not a problem at all, so people will be looking for different interventions from those in leadership positions depending upon how they make-sense of the problem. Most issues encountered in the workplace are understood by managers on the basis of often very limited or perceptually biased information, suggesting that judgment about the nature of the problem we are dealing with is not at all straightforward, and will always be open to many influences and interpretations. Further, it is likely that complex wicked problems have some aspects that are essentially ‘tame’ and will appear to respond in part to technical efforts, at least at first. Given this subjectivity, how might leaders decide or agree which sort of approach to adopt or what action to take if they cannot be at all sure which sort of problem they are faced with?
How easy is it to change our style or approach, even if we are able to assess what might be needed? This is a huge area for debate beyond the scope of this introduction, and no doubt you will have your own perspectives to offer in response. Whilst we can all adapt our behaviour to some degree, doing so with any conviction in a sustainable and authentic way, might be a big challenge for many. Yet it is a key feature of the approach of many leadership style models that we are able to do just that. Grint raises the suggestion that perhaps what we do instead, is to . ..
Might we define the situation to match our preferred way of approaching problems? In other words we talk about and respond to problems using the language and perspectives that define the problem in ways that we are comfortable with, and which allow us to deal with it in our preferred style. For example we may have encountered people who talk excitedly about this week’s crisis, who appear to enjoy running around in a flap, and demand urgent action to stave off what to them is ‘certain catastrophe’. Perhaps they like the fun and energy of all this and the commanding approach to leading it allows, or even ‘demands’? Or perhaps we have worked with managers who’s response to every challenge, no matter how difficult or hard to grasp, is to reduce it and make it tangible through the application of management tools – action-planning rituals and policy review processes being common examples, among many others. This perspective sees personal preference, habit or beliefs, among other things, drive the leadership approach, rather than any objective or shared analysis of the situation that might support a choice of ‘style’.
More importantly it provides managers and indeed organisations with a handy ‘escape’ route when faced with difficult and complex wicked problems. Both managerial ‘solutions’, and commanding our way through a ‘crisis’ have value, but neither are necessarily helpful if the challenge we face is both difficult and uncertain. So some further questions emerge for managers faced with such wicked issues.

What do we do with wicked problems?
Why might we continue with managerial solution-finding when the nature of the challenges we face are complex and uncertain? There are a host of responses to explore with managers here, and many at a very personal level. Managerial solution finding is what is taught, absorbed, reflected in organisational culture, recognised, measured, and expected from operationally focused managers. Faced with complex and ambiguous challenges requiring leadership, people may understandably feel ill equipped to react differently, even if they are aware of the complex nature of the problem they face.
Whilst responses will be unique to each manager, a common one is to simply reenact the managerial actions they are familiar with, as this is comfortable, may have worked in the past, and they can be seen to be ‘taking action’ in a way that is understood by colleagues. The feelings associated with this response are well worth exploring since anxiety and fear are generally present when uncertainty and ambiguity become apparent. Further it becomes very difficult for managers to explore this anxiety and challenge with each other, since leadership beliefs about ‘being in control’ and ‘knowing the answer’ are still widely held and expressed in organisational life. Not being able to understand the wicked issue is uncomfortable for most managers, so it’s not explored or even acknowledged in these terms. Instead the uneasiness is pushed aside in a rush to solutions, however useless these might be in practice. Staff expectations too, however un-thought through, may reinforce this demand for ‘leadership’ and ‘action’.
Another response to this rising anxiety and a growing sense that the problem is a wicked one may be to adopt or demand a commanding role in the face of the ‘crises’. People’s uneasiness about difficult problems and lack of an obvious way forward ensures the commanding approach is also seductive, again however useless the action taken might be.
This is wonderful terrain to wander into with managers as all kinds of dynamics and perspectives about responsibility, power, fear, needs, and relationships, among others, relate to the challenges of taking on the wicked issues, and there are plenty of other responses or understandings to add to those above.

A more productive response?

The model we began with suggested a leadership response is required for wicked problems – but what is that? It would need many more articles to engage in the debate about what leadership is or looks like, but it’s possible that working on complex and difficult problems might require managers to drop habitual ‘managerial’ responses, and adopt a very different way of thinking and behaving. Perhaps they will need to unlearn those needs that many have to be in control, to know the answer, and to be decisive, and instead adopt a more contemporary perspective on leadership. This would include the capability to be much adept at real dialogue and working productively with difference and with change, the acceptance of the value of constructive dissent, of asking questions, and of trusting that engaging others is essential in order to liberate their ideas and energy in tackling difficult issues. As Amanda Sinclair puts it “Leadership ….. A way of thinking and acting that mobilises people to find new, freer and more meaningful ways of working and living”. Lastly, they may find it helpful to learn to relax with wicked problems, and accept that working in ambiguous and uncertain environments and in situations of ‘not-knowing’, is both possible and potentially very exciting.

The above are over-simplified and personal views of some useful ideas in the discussion about leadership practice – I’m responsible for all of the misunderstandings and inaccuracies it contains. Chris Gale, 2013

Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management, at Warwick Business School, Warwick University, UK
Keith Grint (2005) Leadership: Limits and Possibilities, Palgrave Macmillan
Amanda Sinclair (2007) “Leadership for the disillusioned”, Allen and Unwin

Chris Gale has been facilitating leadership learning and development for over 20 years. He currently works with NHS trusts, and as an associate with Warwick Business School and Lancaster University Management School. He has worked with a wide range of corporate and public sector clients on management and organisational development, working with change and helping people make sense of their working relationships and contexts.