You might have come across the idea of wicked problems. These are not “wicked” in the sense of the Wicked Witch of the West, but rather wickedly complicated to resolve. Many problems facing the world today fit into “wicked”, as defined by Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber in their book, Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems.
- A wicked problem is multi-dimensional
- A wicked problem has multiple stakeholders
- A wicked problem has multiple causes
- A wicked problem has multiple syndromes
- A wicked problem has multiple solutions
- A wicked problem is constantly evolving (and is therefore never fully solved)
Sound like some problems you know? Climate change, mass migration, species extinction, soil degradation, rise of populism, mental health crisis, etc etc etc.
If you’re wondering what the authors mean by “multi-dimensional”, the fundamental idea is that all of the existence, all knowledge can be mapped into four basic quadrants underlying the Universe. This division is based on two parameters: internal and external, on the one side, and singular and plural on the other. Adding those up we arrive at four quadrants:
- Upper Left (UL); subjective: individual, self, consciousness, experience – I
- Lower Left (LL); intersubjective: collective, community, culture, worldviews – WE
- Upper Right (UR); objective: object, organism, thing, behavior – IT
- Lower Right (LR); interobjective: system, (social) structures, networks, environment – ITS
Just to make matters even more complicated, Watkins and Wilber observe that every problem needs to be viewed through a variety of lenses and tackled with corresponding solutions – these lenses being political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental.
Your head might be exploding at this point – four quadrants, six lenses – does that mean looking at a problem 24 different ways before you even start solving it?!
Well, maybe, or maybe not. And the views that follow are my own, not those of W&W.
I take the above model to be a vital reminder that we cannot solve a wicked problem if we fail to recognise that it has multiple dimensions. By definition, a campaign simplifies a problem and presents a silver bullet solution. (Chris Rose, author of How To Win Campaigns: “Education, while good in itself, is a broadening exercise. It uses examples to reveal layers of complexity, leading to lower certainty but higher understanding. Don’t use it to campaign. Campaigning maximises motivation of an audience, not its knowledge. Use education to campaign, and you’ll end up exploring your issue but not changing it.”) So while the campaign may succeed, the resulting action may well fail.
For example, let’s say that Mr Trump sees the light on climate change (go on, dare to dream): he develops the political will and puts in place a legal framework to ensure environmental protection. But he hasn’t considered the impact on his grassroots supporters at the social level, or his business buddies at the economic level. And the technological solutions are there, but the green tech industry isn’t yet developed enough to make his legislation viable. So the policy fails, he loses his grassroots support, and gets voted out at the next election. (Do I hear cheering?)
Clearly a new style of leadership is going to be necessary. No matter how intelligent a leader may be (or not), it’s not possible for one person to be an expert in all of these realms. Collaborative leadership is going to be increasingly necessary. This may even look like no leadership at all.
Some interesting books I’ve read on this over the last few years:
Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux. From the back cover: “The way we manage organizations seems increasingly out of date. Deep inside, we sense that more is possible. We long for soulful workplaces, for authenticity, community, passion, and purpose. In this groundbreaking book, the author shows that every time, in the past, when humanity has shifted to a new stage of consciousness, it has achieved extraordinary breakthroughs in collaboration. A new shift in consciousness is currently underway. Could it help us invent a more soulful and purposeful way to run our businesses and nonprofits, schools and hospitals? (If you prefer video to reading, this is a long one but a good one.)
Rewiring the Corporate Brain, by Danah Zohar. From the back cover: “Corporate structures, like the physical and biological structure of the human brain, operate from one of three individually distinct but intricately interrelated systems: mental, emotional, and spiritual. The healthiest organizations, like the healthiest minds, learn to respond and adapt to external stimuli through a well integrated union of all three structures rather than a single, rigid approach. Business models, however, primarily neglect emotional and spiritual components in their operations, placing emphasis instead on efficiency, results, and other qualities readily associated with the mental structure alone. With only one-third of the corporate brain utilized, the remaining two-thirds present a vast reserve of ideas and opportunities for responding creatively to the daily demands of corporate life. Rewiring the Corporate Brain offers a new way to think about, lead, and structure organizations for fundamental transformation. It demonstrates how people must change the thinking behind their thinking – i.e., rewire the structures of the corporate brain – to operate more fully and achieve genuine fundamental organizational change. Written for managers at all levels, Rewiring the Corporate Brain takes its lead from quantum, chaos, and the latest brain sciences to offer practical, accessible, and inspiring alternatives to traditional structures in corporate design, practice, and implementation.” Memorable quote, attributed to a FTSE 100 CEO as he came into a management meeting (somewhat paraphrased): “It’s just as well we know we don’t know what we’re doing, because if we thought we did know what we’re doing, we’d probably f*** it up.”
Crowdocracy, by Alan Watkins. From the back cover: “Crowdocracy discusses one of the world’s most debated and critical issues – who decides our future and how should we be governed? Democracy is struggling to produce solutions to the challenges of our times. Populations feel disenfranchised with the political process, with the real power today being in the hands of a small elite. Crowdocracy offers a radical new way forward, one that allows all of us – not just some of us – to participate in how we are governed. Using technology and the insights of crowd wisdom, the authors describe how all of us can replace our elected officials and ultimately shape and govern our communities. A revolutionary idea that can be implemented in an evolutionary way.” Surprising fact: a group made up of “smart” and “not so smart” people consistently produces better results than a group made up of exclusively “smart” people.
With my Sisters hat on, I can’t help feeling that this has powerful implications for female/feminine leadership. The era of the lone wolf is over. It is the traditionally feminine skill of collaboration that is needed now – leadership will become an explicitly collective endeavour, rather than a vehicle for a single ego.
Of course, this also has important implications for followership. We can’t wait for a hero to come along and fix things. This is going to take all of us, bringing what we can, playing our part. This means we need to get informed, get engaged, get involved.
No more passengers. Only crew!