Change: Confronting Wicked Problems

Published on 16th October 2012

Turbulent social change, technological advances and escalating complexity are proving difficult nuts to crack for many organisations. Barnes & Noble, Eastman Kodak and Blockbuster are just some examples of companies who face imminent destruction because they aren’t able to adjust and innovate within the changing market.

Director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), Walter Baets, says that organisations that are able to innovate in order to survive sustainably, are able to steer through complex problems, and are merciless about implementing change.

According to him, contemporary strategic-planning processes haven’t helped enterprises cope with the wicked problems they face; such as implementing strategic plans on environment issues, developments that impact local communities, and investment options in areas under public scrutiny. There is too much talk and not enough action.

 “They keep analysing the issue rather than doing something about it. They would do better to try out some strategy as a starting point; the consequences will give them a better handle on the real problem they face,” he says.

“Wicked problems are the complex social and developmental business problems that change as you work through them. To begin to solve these, one has to apply new ways of thinking, the old ways no longer work and we can’t pretend otherwise. Leaders need to unwrap their problem solving processes, which requires input from people with different disciplines and backgrounds. They need to make sense of the purposes that need to be pursued to achieve their goals, instill new purpose, and through doing so create movement and trajectory in people,” says Jennifer Riel, Director of Content and Communications at Rotman School of Management (Toronto, Canada).

Riel says that leaders are confronted with issues that cannot be resolved merely by gathering additional data, defining issues more clearly, or breaking them down into small problems. “Often, planning techniques don’t generate fresh ideas. There is a focus on innovation certainly – but not enough on leading innovation, which is integral to making maximum use of the opportunities available. Leading innovation contributes significantly to improvement in enterprise productivity and quality, integral components of business strategy and success,” says Riel. 

John C. Camillus, Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Business (US), conducted research over 15 years into wicked problems, and found that to tackle wicked issues, smart companies conduct experiments, launch innovative pilot programs, test prototypes and make mistakes from which they can learn.

These companies are however in the minority; his research into leading companies showed that executives willing to embark on a number of robust actions often become indecisive when they realise that every response to a wicked problem will alter the issue the company faces, and further necessitate another change in strategy.

“In a world of complex possibilities, enterprises don’t know if their strategies are appropriate or what those strategies’ consequences might be. They should therefore abandon the convention of thinking through all their options before choosing a single one, and experiment with a number of strategies that are feasible even if they are unsure of the implications,” Camillus states in Harvard Business Review.

However, Baets believes that leaders can be taught the skills to innovate while navigating through wicked problems, and in doing so, reach new levels in innovative productivity.

To demonstrate this, top business schools from two continents, the GSB and Rotman, have collaborated to develop the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice specialising in Innovation Leadership.
Through applying integrative thinking, business design, systems thinking and organisational learning into one programme, the schools believe leaders will be able to confront wicked problems, develop new business models, and gain the tools to navigate through complexity.

“How do you manage the future and present? When you think about ways to innovate – so many new challenges erupt. When you put those challenges together – there is no right answer. By tying together the four streams of thinking that we have constructed the programme around, participants will be fluid, flexible, and confident in wading through complexity and the ambiguity of wicked problems – and so develop their own toolboxes to approach their unique issues as effectively as possible, as they develop – and thus innovate through them.”

The schools believe the programme will enable leaders to empower themselves, their businesses, and their employees to reach new levels of sustainable productivity – to grow while balancing both the long and short term, and learn constructive methods to reach new heights of innovation in the face of wicked problems. “Only through approaching wicked problems holistically can the nut be cracked,” says Baets. The programme begins in December 2012 and runs until December 2013.

For more information, please contact Samantha Van Der Ross  at customised.learning@gsb.uct.ac.za.


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