By Meike Beckford
In January I wrote a post about tame, wicked and critical problems. At the time, we had very little idea of what was about to hit us with Coronavirus, so the discussion was quite generic and the examples broad. Fast forward 3 months and the world around us has significantly changed with the global response to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. So, rather than introduce a new topic this month, I thought I’d take some time to think about what we can learn from this theory for our current situation.
Tame, wicked1 … and critical – a recap
Last time, I introduced these 3 types of problems or situations:
- Tame problems are known and understood, even if they are complicated. They have known processes that require management.
- Wicked problems are hard to define, contested and interrelated with many other issues. They are complex and need a questioning approach through leadership.
- Critical problems are highly time-sensitive crises that need direct action and answers from a ‘commander’.
Source: Keith Grint 2
Tame, wicked and critical for Coronavirus
So where are we currently? The obvious answer is critical. Coronavirus presents a clear threat that needs quick action – new measures were brought in quickly to limit movement, redirect resources and provide the financial and legal backing for these changes. In comparison to the usual long debates from our politicians and extended change management processes in public services, things changed incredibly quickly*. We saw people adopt ‘command’ style leadership in giving instruction, providing answers and (trying to) convey certainty.
We’ve also seen some management style approaches, along the lines of ‘we know what we’re doing here, and we have plans in place which we are able to execute’. We are seeing benefit offices processing new applications, supermarkets managing their supply chains and health and social care professionals implementing infection control procedures. It may not quite be ‘business as usual’ but we are moving in some areas to a mindset of managing operations.
What we perhaps haven’t much engaged with yet is where wicked problems sit within this. Clearly the Coronavirus pandemic touches many wicked problems from global health inequalities to globalised travel; and in the UK from the future of the NHS to a fair taxation and welfare system.
What can we learn?
Firstly, that recognising something as a critical problem and responding in a ‘command’ style can be very useful. It allows us to override many usual barriers to progress, take action quickly and achieve results where needed. It can also provide reassurance that someone is getting a grip of it and knows what to do.
No amount of planning for these scenarios will allow you to always stay in a ‘management’ state. No matter how good your business continuity plan was, I bet you still needed additional meetings to plan a specific response, bring in new measures or put out new guidance. It is however still a useful ‘rehearsal’ and a goal to move towards as time goes on, to provide some consistency.
Most interesting is perhaps how a ‘critical’ problem can help with a ‘wicked’ problem. By forcing fast action in new directions to respond to the current crisis, we have created new approaches, funding streams and partnerships. What previously seemed like an immovable block may have been overcome and what was previously seen as too risky, or against procedure, has suddenly been tested. This will likely give us new knowledge and ideas that we can take back to our day-to-day practice when we do overcome the current crisis. There will likely also be some unforeseen and negative consequences of the actions we have taken, and some new ideas won’t have paid off, but it will have shaken up our thinking so we won’t be back at square one when it’s all over.
What state are you in (now)?
This will be a very individual answer depending on the industry you are in and your personal circumstances. You may also be in a different mindset for home and work, particularly if you’re now trying to be in ‘command’ of a group of restless children stuck indoors! Can you use these ideas to become more conscious of how you’re approaching different situations and think about how you would like to respond?
Part of your team may be continuing broadly as they were and managing with existing problems, whereas others may feel they’ve had the rug pulled from under them and no longer know what they’re there to do. You may need to adapt your style to recognise not only what the situation needs, but also what different people and teams need from you.
Finally, is there anything you feel you can learn or use from this period that will help when we return to ‘normality’ (whatever that may be!)? Can you bring some new thinking, or a new connection, to your wicked problem that might point towards a different perspective or way forward? For now, you may just be focused on surviving and many of you will be facing difficult challenges which need all your energy, so you may well not be ready for anything else just yet, but perhaps in a few months you may be able find something valuable from all this upheaval.
My thanks again to Lancaster University Management School, and the Executive MBA team.
Follow me on @MeikeB88 and @DoshTweets and visit www.dosh.org for more.
1 Rittell, H. & Webber, M. (1972) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4, pp.: 155-169
2 Grint K. (2008) ‘Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership’, Clinical Leader, 1(2)
*No comment ventured here on the appropriateness of actions, but whatever you think of the response, it certainly wasn’t business as usual.