Wicked Bad Problems – 7 Clumsy Steps To Find A Solution

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’ 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 significant human problems, such as the AIDS crisis, homelessness, poverty, when traditional responses seemed incapable of providing solutions … and if a ‘solution’ were to be 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 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 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.

Emotional Power

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.

They are:

  1. Command – physical power
  2. Management – rational power
  3. Leadership – emotional power

Physical power is needed in crises: when a problem or situation threatens the viability of a project, decisive action is necessary, and people respond to a call to action.

read more about when micromanagement is good

Rational power is best in times of uncertainty: 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 essential and lending our credibility.

Leading change in uncertain times needs proactive support from senior leaders to seek advice from people and empower 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 our people, we share our attitudes, goals, preferences and judgements; we present our way of looking at the world.

read more about talking to your people

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 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:

  1. ask questions, not provide answers,
  2. shift from commander to sponsor,
  3. build relationships, not structures,
  4. give permission to engage in constructive dissent,
  5. learn to live with ambiguity,
  6. step into other people’s shoes, and
  7. 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 creates a climate that allows people to unleash their potential.

There are no limitations to what people can achieve with the right environment.