By Dave Crisp
Wicked is a word complexity science applies to problems composed of multiple overlapping issues that seemingly can’t be resolved without solving all of them together. As the world’s problems become more complex and intertwined, this applies to more of what we deal with at many levels.
On the grandest scale, weather problems appear to be increasingly damaging in less predictable ways across wide areas. Scientific consensus points to climate change from increasing industrialization of ever larger areas of the globe, though not everyone fully agrees yet.
The puzzle becomes how to eliminate poverty and starvation, spread education and reasonable standards of living, health and better benefits for all of us without creating so much pollution we begin to see massive problems that outweigh those very benefits. Are we slowly spiraling upward, educating more people to solve more problems, or downward, creating bigger problems than any number of us can ever solve?
On lesser scales, but often nearly as resistant to solutions, are issues such as co-ordinating governments to provide services we all believe we need without increasing costs out of reach — health, education, crime prevention. Government challenges are a main subject of a new book “Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Developing Enterprise Leaders,” The authors argue the key is collaborative solutions, which requires “a type of leader who can encourage and facilitate collaboration... to achieve a resolution that is greater than the sum of individual actions.
I have good and bad days, as I suspect most of us do — and certainly all executives. Sometimes it seems like problems such as improving leadership styles enough to matter are impossible. Later I conclude we are making progress and things can be changed.
In reality, we see a tremendous amount of improvement has occurred up to the present — vast changes for the better in large parts of the world, repeatable by organization after organization because of what we have learned in science, management and many other disciplines. We build on the achievements of earlier generations and hope the next ones can build on ours.
What frequently seems to confuse us is that much improvement is hit or miss. In aggregate, things get better, but many individual efforts fail, many organizations disappear, often rapidly, while a few survive to implement new approaches. This is exactly how science describes complex processes of all types — many try, few succeed and those are quickly copied and spread, becoming a base on which to advance even further.
In the midst of all this "muddling forward," we remain uncertain that things are working or whether it will all end at some point as problems simply become too complex for us to make progress that exceeds slipping back. But with improving leadership and organizational culture all the positive signs are there that we’re headed toward a tipping point.
A free hard copy of Talent Management magazine appeared this week and I cancelled because I’d rather have e-copy, but I looked through for a chance to see a "month at a glance" view of the field. Of 13 feature articles, five were on applying the latest technologies, six on transforming to better models for leadership, engagement and collaboration and two miscellaneous.
Granted, I follow talent and leadership topics, so I get an overabundance of material, but the key is that most of it reflects the trend to at least recommend more collaborative approaches in all respects. Sometimes one has to take care not to over-interpret, however. A tweet reported in the magazine (there’s a notable switch — print reporting added value from Twitter) in response to the online version of one article on how to improve culture reads: “Get rid of everyone who is not a real 100 per cent team player before attempting to change anything at all.”
It would be tempting to read that as positive support for collaborative leadership. But that might be too optimistic. It could also be from a command and control person whose version of wanting teamwork is "get rid of team members who don’t jump when I say to."
One problem with many of our articles on better leadership is they can be read by both collaborative and old-style command and control leaders as things they are both doing, just with a different meaning underneath. Another article advises: “Good leaders explain the significance of the mission and how it fits into the larger scheme.... Vision clarifies roles, goals, and the way forward, thereby facilitating team performance.”
I recall bosses who would explain their vision thus: “Beat your budgeted sales and profit targets and we’ll all thrive.” They thought explaining further was superfluous. Similarly, they would clarify roles, goals and the way forward as “you won’t last long if you don’t.”
I fear at times we talk in such generalities that the best modern leaders and old-fashioned tyrants can both feel they’re doing exactly what the experts recommend. We have to hope the examples or other "keys" laid out by such articles are a little less open to interpretation.
In yet another article, an up-and-coming millennial leader said, “It comes from a service-based mindset that I believe is the calling card for my generation’s leaders” (let’s hope) and adds “we must balance this approach with our responsibility to hit objectives, manage and clearly convey expectations” and finally, “I’m actually developing my own personalized, service-leadership style.”
This has a far better sound than the general guidance, which we’ve heard only too often. It also reflects exactly the way leaders have always learned most — actual experience in a responsible job — but with a pleasantly surprising emphasis on service leadership, not something that used to be widespread.
We seem to be making progress. One can only hope that the deluge of "do as I say" articles will overcome the "do as I do" example of 82 per cent of existing leaders who continue to show up in surveys as lacking collaborative, coaching and development skills. I look forward to the day when I mention this and someone points me to a survey showing that 82 per cent has dropped substantially. So far it hasn’t happened, but it should be possible. Let’s hope talent management isn’t just preaching to the choir or that the choir is at least encouraging its own bosses to read some of this.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.