top of page

7 mistakes leaders make when dealing with wicked problems

Wicked problems are complex by nature and ones where the relationship between cause and effect can really only be considered in hindsight. The challenge for leaders in making sense of a complex, contradictory, paradoxical or ambiguous (i.e. wicked) problem has been made even more difficult by advances in technology, big data, globalisation and cultural change.

Knowing the top seven mistakes leaders make when dealing with wicked problems can help reduce workplace stress and optimise resources.

#1. Fail to let patterns emerge. The temptation is to fall into a command, or management mode by focusing on what we can see or understand to be the facts; in doing so, we turn away from allowing patterns to emerge. As leaders we need to create the space to be able to stand back and allow for patterns of emergence, then identify the patterns that will provide the pointers to the next step to solving it.

#2. A belief that there is one right answer. Assuming that there is one ‘right’ answer is limiting. The nature of wicked problems means that there are no right answers and many unknown unknowns. Leaders need to learn to be more agile in their thinking and have a level of authenticity that allows for open discussion. This in turn encourages new ideas and a range of possible solutions that might be safely tested before large resources are expended on ‘the solution’.

#3. Inability to withstand the pressure to solve the issue right now. Resisting the temptation for premature action and jumping right in can be tough when your boss or client is demanding that the problem be solved right now. The leadership challenge is to allow yourself, your teams, and the organisation to feel pressure within a range that they can stand (be more resilient). Wicked problems are unordered and require time to solve.

#4. Thinking that failure is bad. Leaders can often feel the pressure to be right each and every time with no room to make mistakes. When it comes to wicked problems the pathway to solutions is going to include trialling options, acknowledging and learning from failure in a safe environment created by leaders where the consequences are not catastrophic or consume large resources.

#5. A belief that the problem will be solved through linear thinking. Those with technical training can approach a problem with instinct, making sense of what is in front of us and responding with what we know has worked in the past: linear application. When it comes to wicked problems you may need to trial a possible first step solution and then make sense of the outcomes before the next step occurs.

#6. Thinking that best practice will solve the issue. Best practice is, by definition past practice. This can be useful in solving problems that are simple however past practice is not applicable to the wicked problem. Best practice might provide a starting point for probing the issue although it is unlikely to provide the solution. Leaders need to be able to apply a range of tools and create an environment where agility and open discussion flourishes.

#7. Thinking that you need to control every step. When the pressure is on to solve a wicked problem, the leader can feel like they are carrying all the weight and that they need to control every step. Solving wicked problems will require the collective intelligence of the team seeking to surface the diversity of views by which we can find the next step in solving the wicked problem.

Wicked problems are difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They create chaos and require a different kind of leader.

If you would like to explore the leadership required to solve complex and wicked problems then this might be of interest to you. Wicked leadership

bottom of page