Leadership as a Wicked Problem

Leadership as a Wicked Problem

Leslie P. Hitch (Northeastern University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch025
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In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber put forth the term ‘wicked problems' to define situations where there was no concrete solution and where any attempt to ‘solve' the problem often resulted in the spiraling of additional wicked problems. John C. Camillus (2008) expands upon this concept and applied it to what he considered the near-impossibility to design coherent organizational strategy. Further exploration into the literature of wicked problems indicates the budding of new configurations of leadership to address wicked problems. As organizational strategy, in most industries, is inherently connected to leadership, this chapter suggests that the teaching of leadership, described often as one person in control or seen as the primary guide, needs to be revitalized, renewed and redirected as a process. Leadership may no longer be a person or hierarchy in order to contend with the wicked problems mounting in many industries, organizations, governments and society. The chapter concludes with suggestions on ways to teach leadership that are based upon Rittel and Webber's 10 characteristics of wicked problems.
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Almost a decade ago, John C. Camillus, writing in the venerable Harvard Business Review, declared, via the article’s title, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem” (2008). His premise, honed from study of corporate strategies, was that companies were increasingly employing multiple methods to quantify reams of data now available and from the data, models were emerging to formulate strategy. However, Camillus asserted, these models, regardless of sophistication, would be soon of little use. His argument rested on the concept of Wicked Problems, attributed to Rittel and Webber (1973). Recently this term and has re-emerged as a framework, and some might even say warning, in business, government, education, healthcare and politics when organizations are beset by situations that cannot be solved by previous solutions or conventional wisdom.

Succinctly, a ‘wicked problem,’ has no concrete solution. Nor does it have a replicable solution. Any solution attempted often begets yet another problem and, the original wicked problem, or its offspring, are either right or wrong depending upon the affected constituency (Camillus, 2008; Kolko, 2012; Rittel & Webber, 1973). (See Box 1).

Box 1.­
1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. Individuals in Appalachia and Malawi define poverty differently.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping point. Arriving at a so-called solution simply starts another set of problems.
3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. Attempting to eradicate corruption may be good for some and certainly bad for others.
4. There is no rubric or guide to use for tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. However, unintended consequences are a constant consequence of attempting to solve a wicked problem.
5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem as there are multi-stakeholders contributing to or considering the gravity of a wicked problem.
6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. Increasing opportunity for education for girls and women can upset social structures within countries or communities.
7. There is no scientific, strategic approach to a wicked problem. There are hypotheses for segments of the problem but, because of the multiple viewpoints, no defined goal.
8. Any significant change process requires involvement of as many stakeholders as possible so as to insure the different definitions of the problem are understood as well as possible.
9. Every wicked problem is unique.
10. The people who attempt to solve the problem are held liable for their attempt.

Composite definitions from Camillus (2008) and Kolko (2012). Based on the original definitions of and Webber (1973).

Albert Einstein, who certainly addressed a wicked problem that clearly led to a myriad of wickeder problems, is reported to have said: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Grint (2010) explained that we each hold on to our own beliefs as the only true belief even though we know at another level others do not see the problem or its solution as we do. Human nature prefers, as it is so much less messy, to deal in either ‘tame’ problems. Grint (2010) adds that in the case of wicked problems, the problem often becomes even more wicked as people ‘delay decision-making while you engage in yet more consultation and collaboration” (p. 307). Camillus (2008) is more direct. He quotes Mary Poppendieck, that all the easy problems have been solved (p. 9).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Leadership: As used in this article, leadership is the body of books and textbooks and articles and, primarily, the methodology currently used in teaching and research in the field.

Tame Problems: A clear problem agreed to by all constituencies. A tame problem has a definitive solution and also may be solvable through lessons learned solving a previous and similar problem.

Wicked Problems: The term is based on the work of Rittel and Webber (1973) . There are 10 characteristics of a wicked problem. The most specific of these characteristics in connection to and in contrast with the current mode of teaching leadership is that every wicked problem is unique; a wicked problem has no stopping point- any ‘solution’ results in another wicked problem; and that there are no right or wrong answers, only good or bad ones.

Lateral Leadership: Instead of the usual and expected verticality, lateral leadership entails the building of networks intra and extra of departments and organizations and across constituencies.

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