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Leadership Is a Wicked Problem

Monday, December 30, 2019
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In 1967, Charles West Churchman, philosopher and systems scientist, coined the term “wicked problems.” Today, we describe challenges like climate change and health care as wicked problems, because their multifaceted nature makes them very difficult or impossible to solve. Research from AchieveForum has shown that employees today routinely confront wicked problems in the course of their daily work, although on a smaller scale. In particular, deciding how to lead is a wicked problem because:

  • Complexity and the pace of change make the conditions unique.
  • Multiple stakeholders usually have different perspectives on the problem.
  • It is difficult or impossible to define what leadership is.
  • The current leadership decision affects other concurrent and future leadership decisions.
  • How we decide to lead changes the environment, so the same decision in the future won’t necessarily produce the same result.

It’s usually impossible to know the best way to lead in a given situation, even after the fact. We can’t rely on rules or formulas in deciding how to lead. Reasonable people will disagree, for example, on whether to rely on prescription, authority, influence, empowerment, or motivation to get colleagues to adopt a new process. It’s a judgment call.

When I first joined AchieveForum in 2017, we faced significant financial challenges. Besides making decisions about which changes to pursue, I also had to decide how I would lead—especially with regard to transparency. Our people didn’t trust senior management, so I decided to open up leadership meetings to everyone in the firm, as well as to share that our financial performance over the ensuing months would determine the scale of any layoffs required to ensure our survival.

That leadership decision fostered a lot of trust, and I believe it helped influence a higher level of performance. But reasonable people disagreed with my leadership approach. They worried it would cause our best people to launch job searches—not to mention creating paralyzing fear. Because we had a good outcome, I can conclude that I was right and they were wrong, but I have to recognize that their approach might have produced an even better outcome.

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So, how do you manage the wicked problem of deciding how to lead decisively and effectively in such an uncertain world?

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Peter McIntyre, the wartime painter and author, said, “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.” A decisive leader in the digital age shouldn’t act with confidence because they believe they are right, but rather because they anticipate being wrong and adapting. Throughout our company’s turnaround, I believe my most important action was to keep testing my decision to lead with high transparency so that I could proceed confidently.

Based on our research and experiences with our clients, here are three tips for leading decisively and effectively:

  • Use rules, formulas, decision trees, tools, and job aids with great care. They may provide some insight, but only to a limited degree, because they typically assume stable and predictable circumstances (despite employing words like situational, uncertain, and agile). Use them to expand and sharpen your thinking, not direct it.
  • Set tripwires for revisiting your leadership decision. Identify in advance what evidence you might observe if your leadership decision (as opposed to other related decisions) isn’t working out well. Consider those measures as tripwires for revisiting your decision.
  • Treat trust as an asset. The emotional and competence-based trust people place in you dramatically affects your ability to lead those people over time. Regularly assess how your leadership decisions undermine or foster trust with different individuals and groups, recognizing that a single decision may build trust with some and reduce it with others. It’s often more important how a leadership decision today affects the trust others place in us for the future than what the outcome of that leadership decision is today.

Bottom line: Effective leadership is an ongoing process, not an action. It usually starts not with dogma or exhaustive analysis, but with making a reasonable guess about how to successfully enlist others in accomplishing your objective, actively searching for evidence that you need to adapt your approach, and then gracefully adjusting as necessary.

About the Author

Scott Bohannon is chief executive officer of AchieveForum. Across Scott’s career, he has provided guidance to C-level executives at top global companies on issues including leadership development, HR & digital strategy, employee engagement, change management, finance, risk management, advocacy, corporate strategy, social media, and growth planning.

Before joining AchieveForum Scott was CEO of Info-Tech Research Group and McLean & Co. in Ontario, Canada. Prior to that, Scott was President of nsight2day, a company he founded in 2011 to help organizations better protect and engage customers, employees, and students through innovative technologies. From 1999 to 2011, Scott was General Manager and Executive Committee member at the Corporate Executive Board. He was also an attorney at Sidley Austin and an Instructor at the University of Virginia.

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