By morphing from “evil” to “playful or mischievous”, the word “Wicked” enjoys a new popularity, but now that leaders are also talking about “Wicked” problems, do they mean something different again?
So-called “Wicked Problems” have been called many things before from complex, to stubborn or intractable. Despite effort these problems persist and defy our attempts to solve them. Big well-known examples include Poverty, Climate Change, Mass Migration, Terrorism and HIV/Aids. But in every company and team there are Wicked Problems and we can contrast them with the “Tame Problems” where happily our “Business As Usual” solutions actually work.
What can the leader or the facilitator operating in today’s more “open” workplace do about the Wicked Problems that keep coming back to haunt them?
You can “radically enable” people, by being much more open and explicit at your boundaries, for example to name the “freedoms” you offer (as invitations to your colleagues), and to find out what are their “expectations” of you. When they copy you in doing this unusual thing, they will start behaving more like adults: stronger, readier to act creatively, and to be entrepreneurial.
When leaders take this path, what happens can become “wicked” in the happier way: that is playful, mischievous and surprising. You have fundamentally shifted the context for the stifled ones, and for their frustrated colleagues. Soon your Wicked Problems are being managed more actively, by many more hands, and become wonderfully “tamed”.
By distributing your leadership like this, people start to have more brilliant ideas, their organisations start to grab new opportunities, and expand their contributions to customers and society.
Of course we always go into this with our eyes open: not everyone will want to behave like an adult, nor to walk this wickedly differenty path!
Problems, problems, problems - the social construction of leadership. Keith Grint, Human Relations, 2005 Volume 58(11): 1467-1494
Strategy as a Wicked Problem, John C Comillus, HBR, 2008
Leading strategy as a Journey of Not Knowing. Philip Goodwin and Tony Page, 2011.