Humans love to solve problems.
Whether it is completing a quarantine jigsaw puzzle, giving advice to a friend in need, or adapting to a new business environment, problem-solving is part of the human experience.
But what if the problem is so complex that there is no one solution? Or what if every problem is truly unique and novel? Or what if every problem can be considered a symptom of another problem?
These types of challenges may not be fun to tackle, but they are more common for leaders to navigate today. Design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber named these issues “wicked problems” because they are both difficult to define and ultimately unsolvable. Rittel and Webber outlined a framework of 10 elements to determine if your problem is wicked—a useful tool to help leaders come to terms with the realities they face.
I’d be naive to suggest that I have a “solution” for how to handle any wicked problems you’re facing. However, I did come across a decision-making tool (thanks to my GLC teammate, Paul Miller) that has helped me to navigate the last few challenging months.
One of my favorite educational theorists, John Dewey, has said that “…a problem well put is half solved.” I would suggest that understanding your environment, or making sense of it, is a big part of that other “half!” The Cynefin Framework, introduced by Welsh management consultant and researcher Dave Snowden (and described well in this article), is a sense-making tool to aid leaders in examining the context of their situation, while also suggesting actions for navigating their environment. The framework presents five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder—all of which require different approaches. Having a better sense of the dynamics surrounding you helps you come to terms with the fact that you can’t lead the same way.
I imagine you’re facing more and more challenging situations today, so I hope these few words provide a small nugget of insight for you. There are no easy answers in leadership, but even when our problems are wicked, I still believe human potential has the creativity and the power to move forward.
A recent example of leadership and creativity at work involves one of the GLC’s Leadership Mentors: Garrett Glaeser ’21. After a few days of learning remotely last spring, Garrett had the idea to start a podcast to help current and aspiring student leaders put ideas into practice. The Views from the 202 podcast officially launched last week. We hope the monthly episodes will provide much needed ideas and resources to help our campus community members. Be sure to check it out!
Thank you for reading and I wish you well in your leadership practice.
Executive Director, Garthwait Leadership Center