Higher Ambition leaders face what are known as “wicked problems” when they become involved in tackling multi-stakeholder issues. Wicked problems are those where the causes and solutions are difficult to discern. Poverty is a classic large-scale wicked problem. However, with the increased concern about the social impact of business, formerly straightforward challenges have escalated into thorny, complex wicked ones. Our research fellow Dr. Kate Isaacs has studied this area for several years and was recently interviewed by Brook Manville about what she has learned. Kate described why we see more wicked problems now:
Proliferating networks push many problems to touch others, further and further afield. Connectivity and information transparency makes us more aware of how any issue can affect other institutions and populations. With democratization of power in this connected, transparent world, more people also feel empowered to advocate—or oppose—company actions. The cliché of the butterfly wing rippling effects around the globe is truer than ever.”
Fortunately, there is greater understanding of how leaders can untangle these Gordian knots.
Isaac’s first insight is one that is central to Higher Ambition leadership: bringing the whole system to the table. That means engaging all stakeholders authentically in the process of defining the problem and developing the solution. This helps unearth the full range of concerns and possible contributions to moving forward.
The second insight is critical: before trying to solve the problem, you must establish trust among the stakeholders. “Many leaders are accustomed to being the ‘solution hero.’ Ego mistake! The winning role is facilitating the best answer to emerge, collaboratively, from all relevant stakeholders,” Isaacs told Manville. That requires trust.
Isaacs shares four more important leadership practices that facilitate solving “wicked problems” and sums them up this way:
Great leaders humbly suspend much of what they think they know—about the problem, other stakeholders’ needs, what a final answer might be. But my research tells me that great leaders do know a few things about how to inspire and steward the necessary collaborative process. The six practices we discussed aren’t the whole story– but they’re certainly a good start for anyone’s next ‘wicked’ challenge.’
Read the full article to benefit from them all.
Dr. Kate Isaacs has studied companies and advised senior leaders on leadership, corporate citizenship, sustainability, and systems change for over fifteen years. She holds research appointments at the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation and the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership. She does consulting work independently and through Dialogos, a management consulting and leadership development firm in Cambridge, MA.