Why are some business problems so difficult to grasp?
How do you tackle complex business problems?
What do you think are the biggest challenge facing change leaders today?
Leading Change in Uncertain Times
Implementing a new business system, hiring new people, laying people off are all business problems that are relatively easy to solve as there is little uncertainty.
By contrast, organizational change is an example of a complex and intractable problem. These are considered ‘wicked problems’ and characterized by uncertainty, the absence of a clear answer, and no clear relationship between cause and effect.
Wicked or Clumsy?
The term ‘wicked problem’ arises from the responses to large human problems, such as the AIDS crisis, Homelessness, poverty, when traditional responses seemed incapable of providing solutions … and if a ‘solution’ was found it often made the original problem worse.
Imagine the children’s song, ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a spider …’
The challenge of using traditional problem solving to implement complex change is enormous. Change is full of uncertainty and ambiguity. Therefore, we must learn to manage uncertainty rather than attempt to remove it.
By definition, wicked problems have no known single solution. Therefore multiple partial solutions are needed. We must stop the search for that elegant, silver-bullet answer and consider clumsy solutions by looking for your team to find an answer.
Fear and Ego
Most leaders achieve their position based on knowledge and experience in their profession but often lack well-developed leadership competencies. So when faced with uncertainty, they begin to feel unsure and inadequate.
They respond by resisting change, imposing processes or making a show of strength to make up for their shortcomings, but these actions undermine their power and position.
They stop listening to employees and peers which in turn lessens the chance of success … Fear and ego stop success in its tracks!
Complexity deserves a collaborative approach where we invest in the emotional power of relationships, motivation, support and leadership.
Professor Keith Grint (Warwick Business School-UK) speaks of three forms of authority and three different approaches to power. Each is legitimate. Each has strengths and weaknesses.
- Command – physical power
- Management – rational power
- Leadership – emotional power
Physical power is needed in crises: 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 certainty: when something doesn’t perform as expected there are always answers and it’s the team’s role to find the solution.
Emotional Power solves wicked problems by engaging people and working together for a common purpose. We can’t coerce people into following when dealing with wicked problems; people must want to help find the solutions.
Clumsy solutions to wicked problems are not about control; it is about sponsorship: connecting ourselves to something important and lending it our credibility.
Leading change in uncertain times needs proactive support from senior leaders to seek out advice from people and empowering them to implement creative solutions with authority. We must transition from commander to sponsor and meet the team where they are.
Talking About Sponsorship
Talking is fundamental to human relationships, yet many leaders go unseen by their employees. When we talk to people we share our attitudes, goals, preferences and judgements; we present our way of looking at the world.
Disagreement is unavoidable. But, we must see the problem through the eyes of others to understand their interests, needs and perspectives and begin to see everyone as a potential solution-provider.
Together we can stitch together a clumsy solution by combining everyone’s understanding of the problem.
7 Actions to Solving Wicked Problems
Leading organizational change 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.
Solving wicked problems is about engaging people and working together for a common purpose. It is not a panacea nor is it elegant … it is clumsy.
The clumsy solution demands a different kind of leader. One that places greater emphasis on the way people behave to create a climate that allows people to unleash their potential.
With the right environment, there are few limitations to what people can achieve.