Why don't they listen to what I say?

Companies have to deal with many different kinds of strategic challenges. Some are managed by clever analyses and decision making from the management team. Others by launching development projects, managed by some of the best resources in the company. But what do you do when the understanding of a problem disappears into complexity? How do you handle a problem that resists mapping and understanding, establishes itself permanently and defiantly resists all attempts to find solutions? What do you do when it seems like no one is listening to what you say?

Many of today’s challenges in society are conspicuously complex. Nobody can really find clear-cut causes and simple solutions to global warming, gang crime, corruption or the fact-resistance coming in the wake of digital media. These are all examples of Wicked Problems, a category of problems that was first defined in the debate about our most challenging social issues. With Wicked Problems, efforts to map causes and effects soon get lost in complexity, because everything is connected to everything else. Huge numbers of interconnected elements influence each other in a chaotic way, making it impossible to create a comprehensive, complete overview. That’s why Wicked Problems can persist over long periods of time, despite massive efforts to solve them.

It is only in recent years that people in business have begun to realise that strategy deployment – as well as other more operative challenges – might best be understood as Wicked Problems. Still we see a surprising perplexity in many companies when confronted by Wicked Problems.

What happens in a company when you pass beyond the complexity threshold?
A common problem confronting companies is substandard delivery precision. Even if the issue is escalated to high priority, it still doggedly resists giving in to all sorts of attempted solutions. Another common problem is an unsatisfactory yield of quality assured products at the end of a long and complex production process. We have seen many examples of how, despite a large number of ambitious probes and great efforts, no real and enduring change was achieved. Another common example is too high production costs that stubbornly resist all endeavours to be reduced to competitive levels. In product development we often see persistent problems relating to time to market for new products, with subsequent loss of revenues.

In order to understand why this category of problems is so widespread, we need to dig a bit deeper into what characterises a Wicked Problem in a business environment. Most companies of today function at a very complex level of technology. Most companies depend on a high degree of specialisation necessary to keep long, complicated workflows running. These value chains often reach over many countries, cultures and languages, they involve people from a number if different companies. When you realize this the level of complexity companies struggle with on a daily basis begins to come into focus. Still, this is just scratching the surface. In addition to all of this, we have to also consider that companies are made up of people – and people are different. People have different attitudes and opinions, different social skills, values, ideas and perspectives – quite often pulling in different directions. All of this makes companies messy, fragmented and difficult to manage. To summarise, most companies have long since passed the complexity threshold where Wicked Problems have to seriously be taken into account. Beyond the complexity threshold, companies can no longer be managed in a traditional manner. If you do you will inevitably find yourself left with the question: Why don’t they listen to what I say?

Traditional management, with its business plans, breakdown of goals, follow-up on budgets, delegation of responsibility, updated prognoses and monitoring of results will not be enough to effectively deal with Wicked Problems. For this we need an integral approach.

How to tame a Wicked Problem?
The first thing our client companies learn is how, with the help of a strategic dialogue that involves everybody in the company, strategic awareness can dramatically increase. A dialogue with questions and answers, (rather than being talked at in a one-way manner) creates a deep understanding of the business drama and the challenges facing the company. In this way, it becomes much easier for all the employees to put their shoulders behind the priorities of the company. A two-way dialogue also makes it possible for management to get a deeper understanding of what kind of challenges everyone is facing along the value chain. This creates a background of consensus that makes all collaboration in the company infinitely smoother. A tangible sense of everybody really pulling in the same direction will redirect conflict-ridden reactive energy towards finding shared solutions to shared problems. Everybody’s local expertise and goodwill will come into play in a better way, when everyone senses they belong to the same team and pull in the same direction.

The next step for our client companies is to learn how to organise work in such a way that everybody’s intelligence can come into play and appropriately handle the complex challenges of the company. For this to happen, management have to understand that all co-workers are experts in their own working areas and have to be given the confidence to take initiatives for change and the power to make their own decisions – even regarding issues that traditionally always ended up in the hands of experts.

Finally, our client companies learn how to organise a systematic and enduring work structure, making sure everybody in the company sets aside time, on a regular basis, to think together and set up action plans to help the company meet the strategic challenges. A work structure that ensures everybody keeps focus on the same issue until it is resolved.

In this way, a company can muster the energy and focus to be able to deal with one or two of even the most difficult Wicked Problems. It gives the company the ability to act as one coordinated team. All the players in the team understand the game and can therefore act and take initiatives from their own local position. Step by step, all the many knots, that together keep a Wicked Problem in place, are untied. Researchers in the field say: A Wicked problem can only be resolved by the collaborative thinking and acting of a large number of members of the social system harbouring the problem. 

If you want to know some more about Wicked Problems please read this study from Harvard Business Review.

Three bits of advice on how to build the muscles needed to lead a company that has passed the complexity threshold:

  1. Initiate and keep a strategic dialogue going with everybody in the organisation. A two way dialogue based on a story of the future of the company that everybody can relate to. Clear goals that everybody can understand and translate into actions in their local work environment.
  2. Train all managers and co-workers to achive mastery of some basic communication skills. Only when everyone practice their ability to shift between perspectives and constantly strive to see and use each others’ points of view, can they start to ‘think and act together’ as one team.
  3. Build a robust infrastructure that drives strategy work and involves everybody in the company, thus giving staying power to points 1 & 2.

By: Lasse Ramquist and Håkan Färnlöf