Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

‘As A Leader Are You Facing Up To Those Wicked Problems?’

Today I’m going to get a little ‘Grimm’ by asking whether it was the Wolf or Little Red Riding Hood who had the right approach to their wee dilemma?

The challenge for any Leader is to recognise that there are different types of problems which demand different approaches if they are to be resolved successfully. Universal solutions will almost invariably fail, precisely because no situation, problem or issue will be the same as another — there will always be, at best, slight but significant variations.

In 2009 Keith Grint identified the concept of ‘Wicked Problems’. There are also problems that can be classed as Tame and others that may be called Critical.

In short, Tame problems require management, whilst Critical and Wicked problems need Leadership, but why should this be so?

A Tame Problem Defined

A Tame problem is defined as one where the causes of the problem are known and it can be tackled by applying known and conventional approaches with good management doing what good management does best — sharing resources and information; delegating responsibility; and working through familiar structures and processes.

A Critical problem however requires a wholly different approach.

It is immediate, it carry’s a heightened risk and it may threaten the very survival of the organisation, or perhaps what you hold dear.

There will be little time to gather detail and assumptions will need to be made. On these terms a response may be only partially successful, but the organisation cannot afford inaction and with this kind of problem a ‘Leader’ will need to take charge and be directive.

Then There’s Wicked problems

And then we have the Wicked problems, which are different again and require a totally different set of responses and actions, because to paraphrase Colonel H R McMaster, “They’re so damn complex and if you ever think you have the solution, you’re wrong and you’re dangerous”.

A Wicked problem will be complex and messy, because its’ causes are complex, ambiguous, non-linear, multiple and often inter-connected. At its’ heart will probably be one or more intractable challenges which can never be completely dealt with and the underlying approach will be to ‘Think Total, Act Piecemeal’: The aim being to take bite-sized chunks out of the Wicked problem in order to reduce it’s magnitude and severity. In short, don’t be tempted to bite off more than you can chew!

Wicked problems need clumsy solutions i.e. not solutions developed on the drawing board, but solutions that pragmatically engage with whatever comes to hand and build on what already exists. They will aim to make things better, remembering in this context solutions are better or worse, rather than right or wrong, &, there will be no best practice to follow or possibility of transferring a successful solution from one place to another.

In fact, the solution applied to the Wicked problem will rarely, if ever, be repeatable, as it will more than likely change the root of the original problem, which will then require new approaches to be taken and new solutions to be found.

Of course, if there has been a successful partial solution, then it would be possible to transfer this method, but it is important to also recognise with Wicked problems that if they cannot be totally eliminated, there is no point where the problem can actually be written off as being finally resolved.

It is also important to remember that whilst a Wicked problem is essentially unique and novel the problem may not be fully understood until a solution has been developed and applied; and it may well turn out to be the symptom of another problem — perhaps because an earlier Wicked problem has been misinterpreted, treated perhaps as Tame & temporarily suppressed.

Wicked problems need high levels of connectivity within the organisation, together with a preparedness to share knowledge and skills across functional boundaries that will drive new learning and enable the development of novel solutions and new knowledge creation.

They also need both positive deviance and constructive dissent, which is where employees move away from the conventional wisdom and challenge the prevailing policies and practices.

For a Leader, the first step in tackling a Wicked problem is to recognise them for what they are and avoid trying to manage the situation or control it!

They must then embrace Emergence and signal to their staff that the principle of Self-organisation is OK.

In short, the usual approaches to solving problems; defining objectives in measurable terms and assembling a neat and tidy project plan, do not apply. The Leader needs to unequivocally accept the reality of the unknown and open the door to non-management solutions; thereby effectively empowering the workforce to think creatively and outside the box.

Another important part of this is recognising and being comfortable with the notion that like success, real learning only comes through failure and the iterative nature of analysis, design, implementation and analysis required for tackling Wicked problems makes this essential.

The Leader also needs to establish shared goals and a common purpose which connects all levels of the organisation; enable and build trust and collaboration between these levels/hierarchies or heterarchies (groups of levels/hierarchies already working together); encourage and support the exchange of information and resources; be prepared to coach, facilitate and ask the ‘What If’ questions; &, model the way in exploring new territories as well as looking at old ideas to see whether these might work in changed circumstances.

Wicked problems then can be pretty grim, but with the right Leadership and organisational resilience — characterised by constantly adapting to a changing environment, dealing with current problems and anticipating future ones — there will be an appetite and enhanced capacity for tackling them.

So, What About Little Red Riding Hood & that Woolf?

So, talking of appetite, did Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Woolf have the right approach to their problem?

Well each, of course, had a different problem to face, although they were interconnected. The Woolf though didn’t just dress up old ideas in a shiny new suit he dressed himself as someone completely different and transformed into Granny. It was inspired out-of-the-box thinking — but he still got the chop!

A cautionary tale, however don’t be put off from tackling those Wicked problems, honouring Emergence and Leading as you should, because if you don’t you could end up facing something far far worse than the Chop!

Paul Mudd is the author of ‘Uncovering Mindfulness: In Search Of A Life More Meaningful’ available on Amazon and; the ‘Coffee & A Cup of Mindfulness’ and the ‘Mindful Hacks For Mindful Living & Mindful Working’ series. He is also a Contributing Author to The Huffington Post and a Contributing Writer to Thrive Global. Through The Mudd Partnership he works with business leaders, organisations and individuals in support of change, leadership excellence, business growth, organistional and individual wellbeing and well doing, and introducing Mindfulness. He can be contacted at and you can follow the continuing journey uncovering Mindfulness on Twitter @TheMindfulBook and at @Paul_Mudd



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