There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong. H.L. Mencken (1920)
Are the problems that you have to deal with becoming more complex, and difficult to resolve? Are you coming across new types of problems, with no precedents, but with pressing deadlines? HR is used to dealing with payroll issues, absences, grievances, and skill shortages.
These are relatively easy to fix. Define the problem. Identify the symptoms and causes. Brainstorm solutions. Identify the best solution. Implement. Problem solved. This works with tame problems – those that are well-understood and have clear solutions.
Today’s HR problems include how to increase top team diversity, which hybrid working model to adopt, managing a multigenerational workforce, changing the organization culture.
These are not tame problems. Senior execs may feel that the top team is diverse enough already. Your staff have already decided when they want to work from home. Those older workers on whose expertise you depend retired during the pandemic, and you can’t persuade them to return.
Have you ever tried to reshape an organization’s culture? The traditional linear approach to problem solving doesn’t work well with issues like these.
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, in 1973, described problems that were particularly challenging as wicked. But the problem solving techniques that most managers learn today still apply only to tame problems – the easy, straightforward, familiar ones that a linear approach can deal with. HR today faces more wicked problems than tame problems. Here are the differences:
|tame problems||wicked problems|
|clearly-defined problem||many stakeholders, many problem definitions|
|you can stop when you find a solution||no stopping point; search for solutions goes on|
|solutions are either right or wrong||no right or wrong, only better or worse solutions|
|many other problems solved same way||every wicked problem is unique; no precedents|
|solutions can be tried and abandoned||every attempt counts; can’t learn by trial and error|
|solutions based on logic||solutions depend on creativity and judgement|
To make matters worse, problems become super-wicked when:
- you need to fix this urgently and time is running out
- there is no clear decision-maker to give a ruling
- those trying to solve the problem are also causing it, or making it worse.
How to tackle wicked problems
Here is a four-step approach to addressing wicked problems. Before you start, give some thought to who you will include in the discussion. Ideally, you want a range of views. This means including those who may not even agree that there is a problem to be solved.
Contrasting views, however, are more likely to lead to creative outcomes. Given the nature of the problems we’re dealing with, we also have to recognize that there may not always be a good solution.
- Explore the problem. This is not straightforward. Different stakeholders may understand the problem in different ways. Some may not think there is a problem at all. It is important to get all of those views into the open.
- Describe the ideal end-state that you want to reach. What does a good solution look like? Once again, expect to meet different views on this.
- Identify what is stopping you from getting to that ideal end-state. The simple technique of mess mapping can help. Give everyone around table a pad of post-it notes. Tell them to write the factors contributing to the problem, one at a time, on these notes, which they then stick to a whiteboard. This builds a picture of the problem, which can have individual, team, organizational, technical, and even wider social and legal dimensions.
- You are now ready to start future-mapping. What actions do we need to take to reach our desired end-state? These actions will not necessarily follow logically from the mess mapping. Imagination and judgement will be required to agree an action plan.
Case study: A high-tech company
This is an example of a super-wicked problem, for which there was no good solution.
Based in Cambridge, UK, this company had several HR issues. Demand for their product was falling after years of growth. Then the founder left.
Shareholders felt that they had been misled about the company’s prospects. The board appointed a new chairman and managing director. They decided, with HR, that culture change was needed, involving the whole organization.
So they asked all employees, ‘What kind of organization do we need to be in order to respond to the challenges ahead?’ Staff expressed pride in and loyalty to the company. But they were critical of the autocratic management style.
The staff also started analyzing the cultures of their own groups. This led to a company-wide understanding of what worked, what didn’t, and what was needed to bring about change. It became clear that senior management had to review their own behavior.
Unfortunately, the new chair died from a heart attack, putting the old management back in charge. Then sales fell further, leading to redundancies. The culture change program was abandoned. Two years later, the company was sold, and the HR director left.
Case study two: Hospital performance management
A UK hospital had performance management problems. The system was not being used as intended. Individual and corporate performance suffered as a result. External regulators were demanding a solution. Because they could not agree how to fix it, this was a long-running issue, with all the features of a super-wicked problem.
The senior clinicians and managers – the ‘white coats and grey suits’ – were bought together. Their first task was to decide what a good solution to their performance management problem would look like.
They decided that this would involve benchmarking performance, and improving organizational effectiveness by achieving ‘impressive metrics’. And for individuals, there would be shared understanding of performance expectations, clarity of goals, satisfaction, and motivation.
The next step was to identify why they were having this problem. Their mess map is shown below. The group could clearly see the many influences on the problem. Themes that emerged included ‘lack of corporate feedback’, ‘lack of HR support and advice’, and ‘we are reluctant to hurt people’. These individual, professional, departmental, and organizational issues intertwine. But these were causal factors on which this senior group, whose members were often in conflict with each other, could broadly agree.
As a result of this analysis, the features of the redesigned process included affordability, clarity, consistency, and transparency. The new approach was simpler and less time-consuming. For clinical staff in particular, this meant more time to spend with patients.
Two factors are key to success in such cases. First, recognize the complexity of the problem. Second, involve all the stakeholders – even when you know that they will disagree with each other – in helping to decide a new approach to the problem.
The political dimension
Wicked problems have another dimension that we have not yet discussed: politics. Organizations are political systems. Change is a political process. The stakeholders involved in wicked problems have their own interests and agendas. If one stakeholder feels that their interests are threatened by a particular approach to a wicked problem, they may try and sabotage the process. Playing politics can certainly be damaging – but it can also be constructive.
Political skill is usually necessary in order to make things happen and get things done. This means that HR needs to be politically skilled to navigate these issues.
Understand your stakeholders
Complete your stakeholder matrix. Who has an interest in this problem, and who does not? Who has the power to drive or stop a solution, and who are powerless?
Focus on working with those with the greatest interest and the most power. Identify strategies for managing those who are likely to oppose helpful solutions.
You also need political skill to deal with resistance and conflict. Assess and develop your networks with allies.
Build your reputation
We tend to think of self-interest as negative. However, your reputation and credibility mean that you have influence in the organization.
Others ask you for advice. This allows you to steer events and outcomes.
You often have to act to protect your self-interest. If your reputation is damaged, your value to the organization falls, along with your career prospects.
It’s a game of thrones
The realities of power and politics in the organization were spelled out to us by a senior healthcare manager: “If you want to make things happen and get stuff done, you have to know what the game is, who is where on the chessboard, who is connected to whom. If you try not to play, you will be marginalized”
Dealing effectively with wicked problems has several benefits:
- Encourages communication and cooperation between adversaries
- Gives insight into the interests and concerns of others
- Encourages flexible strategies responsive to different needs
- Encourages creativity in finding solutions to complex problems.
Traditional methods can solve tame problems. But wicked problems are more common. They are likely to have a greater impact on the organization, and need special treatment.
Forget quick and neat solutions. Wicked problems need more work. But the returns on this investment will make the extra effort worthwhile.