Build your skills: Andre Spicer

It's easier to sidestep 'wicked problems' than to fix them - but stepping sidewalks brings us no closer to our goals

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By Andre Spicer

28 Oct 2014

At the party conferences, both the Labour and Conservative leaders made a lot of noise about protecting the NHS. They made it sound very simple – but as every civil servant knows, the reality is hideously complex. 

Advances in medical science mean longer life spans, but also massive increases in costs. The increasing role of the private sector may bring more choice, but it often results in greater risk. More patient voice favours personalised treatments, but also declining efficiencies. All these paradoxes make the future of the NHS an apparently insoluble issue. It is a classic ‘wicked problem’.

Every day, leaders in the civil service deal with wicked problems: challenges which are complex and require broad and deep expertise to comprehend and tackle. They are also interconnected, so solving one problem can create others elsewhere. Unintended consequences are the rule, not the exception. Wicked problems are entirely unique, so off-the-shelf solutions don’t work. Wicked problems often cannot be solved; they can only be coped with. 

Some wicked problems facing the civil service include fostering competition in highly-concentrated industries; ensuring data privacy in an increasingly-connected world; protecting an ever-more mobile population from pandemics; and addressing global warming. There are also evergreen wicked problems such as outsourcing and commissioning new IT systems. 

When a leader is face-to-face with a wicked problem, the knee-jerk reaction is to try to manage it. This often entails breaking it down into many ‘tame problems’ – by, for example, designing a policy and farming out implementation to various arms of government. Such approaches can deliver some ticked boxes and small wins. But too often, the result is impractical policies and disastrous disconnects between delivery agencies. So tame problems have an annoying habit of not staying solved for very long; and when they do inevitably return, they often come back in a nastier form. The only way for an individual manager to deal with them is to take the bouquets and run, before the solved tame problem returns as an insoluble wicked one.

Most seasoned leaders are wise enough to avoid wicked problems by, for example, absenting themselves from crucial discussions, or claiming that it falls outside the remit of their role or organisation. Because many people do this simultaneously, the result can be many wicked problems without a home which haunt the civil service like malicious spectres, periodically rattling their chains and occasionally wreaking havoc.

If a wicked problem can’t be dodged, people can off-load it – either to a weaker agency or department, or to a consultant or outsourcing company (everyone knows the contractor won’t be able to solve the problem, but they will be happy to get paid for appearing to try). Alternatively, they can be handed to committees, consultations or task-forces to fester and, hopefully, die. 

Unfortunately, whilst dodging wicked problems might save individual headaches in the short term, it tends to create giant collective migraines in the long term. The public sector is festooned with wicked problems that generations of leaders have carefully avoided or shifted around. When a leader is forced to face up to a wicked problem – due to a crisis, for instance – they must address the tricky question of how to actually deal with them. 

In these circumstances, the most important thing is to admit the truth: easy solutions won’t work, no matter how elegant and intellectually-appealing. Often, the best that can be hoped for is finding a way to cope with the problem. By facing up to the fact that you have a wicked problem, you will save yourself – and others – from harbouring misguided fantasies about magic bullet solutions.

After you’ve accepted you have a wicked problem on your hands, the next step is to cast around for some strategies for living with it. One approach is to harness the power of competition. The US federal government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has a set of ‘grand challenges’ which it invites teams to address with new ideas and approaches. These include predicting the weather, inventing controllable nuclear fission and mapping the human genome. 

Another approach involves tapping into the power of collaboration. For instance, many of the advances in lifestyle-based interventions into health have involved health officials working with people in areas such as education, food, social work and even commercial policy. Building these coalitions is often painful and time-consuming, but the solutions will often be more robust. 

A final strategy for dealing with wicked problems is reframing the way we think about the problem. For instance, instead of seeing the problem of mitigating climate change as a threat to the economy, it can be conceived as a great economic opportunity. By reframing a problem, leaders are able to encourage novel ways of thinking about it.

Facing up to wicked problems is no easy task, and avoiding them is perfectly rational in the short term. But in the longer term, agencies and departments become haunted by insoluble, damaging problems that only worsen over time. Trying to deal with these problems, no matter how difficult, is the work of leadership. 

Andre Spicer is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University London

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