What Keith Grint Taught Me About Solving Wicked Problems

What Keith Grint Taught Me About Solving Wicked Problems

The Lazy Leader explains why there is no single elegant solution when there is complexity. Indeed, we only make progress when we put aside work together for a common purpose.

Here’s what Keith Grint taught me about solving wicked problems.

Clumsy Solutions to Wicked Problems

I used to lead a team of Solution Architects. Their job was to solve problems. Yet, many business managers came to us with solutions in mind.

For instance, they wanted to implement a new business application or develop a website. Whilst the manager did not completely comprehend the problem, they had an answer in mind!

The problem was resolvable because there was little uncertainty—at least in their mind.

In contrast, some business leaders had much difficulty articulating what needed to be done. The problem was complex and intractable.

Invariably these are wicked problems and characterized by uncertainty, the absence of an answer, and no clear relationship between cause and effect.

Wicked problems

An example of a wicked problem is delivering a response to antisocial behaviour. For example, the UK Government Troubled Families Programme aims to reduce public spending by helping households with financial and social challenges, including worklessness, antisocial behaviour, and truancy. In a nutshell, it is about preventing problems, not fixing them.

The great challenge for business leaders who carry out the vision is enormous. Such change cannot be facilitated using traditional approaches. Since uncertainty and ambiguity are the way of the world nowadays, we must break from the norm and learn to manage uncertainty rather than attempt to remove it.

Because wicked problems have no known solution, we always need multiple partial solutions.

Therefore, we must put aside our inclination for elegance and opt for the clumsy solution.

Clumsy solutions

Clumsy solutions to wicked problems consider the views of each solution-seeker. For instance, the policy-maker may insist that we store data in an electronic document and records management system, whereas the service manager may prefer to use a line-of-business system.

In contrast, the leader that advocates a clumsy solution takes the collective view and does what is needed to make some progress. Wicked problems cannot be solved by the individual. Solving wicked problems is about engaging people and working together in a common purpose.

The clumsy solution acknowledges each perspective and then attempts to make them work with each other. This demands a different kind of leader. One that places greater emphasis on the way people behave.

Finding clumsy solutions to wicked problems is about asking questions, not providing answers.

Do you work collaboratively to find clumsy solutions to wicked problems? You are welcome to share your experience in the comments.

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