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Facing Wicked Problems? You Need to Stop Leading Alone

Wicked problems are solved by seeing problems and solutions in new ways, by working with people with very different skills and approaches. As we frequently tell our clients, ‘Uncomfortable does not have to mean unnavigable.’

This is adapted from an excerpt from Don't Lead Alone (Fast Company Press, Feb 2023).

Originally coined by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, wicked problems are unique, have no right or wrong solution, and have no simple lever to pull to end them. It is easy enough to replace the word “wicked” with “sustainability.”

The challenges around carbon offsets are a prime example faced by many of the most well-intentioned companies. If done intentionally, carbon neutrality can be a game-changing step for your corporation; but even then, it can have unexpected consequences. It can displace thousands of people from their homes or climate change itself can be a destructive force.

Wicked problems demand complex, multi-sector solutions. They are solved by seeing problems and solutions in new ways, by working with people with very different skills and approaches. As management consultants and academics, we’ve spent a lot of time working with and studying leaders at what we call the “intersection.” There — where different organizations or sectors collide — we can recognize how we can work together, who to work with, and how to move forward together. Common among all of them was a specific set of skills that we felt were important to anyone who is trying to collaborate with someone different than themselves to make change — inside or outside your company. As we worked to better understand these skills, we noticed that they came together into three relatively tidy groups:

1. Think like a system:

Understand your desired impact and how it fits into a larger picture

Thinking like a system means changing our thinking from how we as individuals have an impact to looking at the entire ecosystem of partners — especially those things that don’t seem related. In a sense, you want to find your perspective and notice what you might be missing from where you stand. You want to see how you are seeing the world and recognize how others, depending on where they are, might see it differently.

Thinking like a system role model

California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC) is a self-supporting center of excellence located at UC Davis. The CLTC’s goal is to accelerate the development and commercialization of energy-efficient lighting and daylighting technologies. Funded through grants and membership fees from industry and nonprofit affiliates, the CLTC takes a big step back and analyzes the system at play. It drives innovation by identifying the different contributors on its systems map and connecting those governmental regulators, companies, entrepreneurs and nonprofit environmental partners. CLTC’s drives policy and prototyping — helping people (especially regulators, manufacturers and environmental organizations) learn how cutting-edge, energy-saving technology can improve society. The CLTC has created powerful demonstrations of how upgraded hospital lighting can improve patient outcomes, how state-of-the-art lighting can save human lives in cities while saving dramatic amounts of energy, and how new lighting systems can help people feel safer on vast college and corporate campuses.

2. Act like a network:

Connect your work to others and find new collaborators

If you act like a network, you’re tapping into areas of knowledge you didn’t know existed. To be clear, we’re not talking about connecting with others to promote yourself or your company. We’re talking about bringing a parade of potential partners into each other’s spheres. And since you are already thinking like a system, you become a learning machine from all these new influences. Indeed, once you start looking at how other people perceive the world, you can begin adopting their best practices.

Acting like a network role model

Recognizing the need to accelerate action on sustainability issues and seeing the power of acting like a network to learn from one another, a group of local government leaders and partners founded the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) in 2008 — to share trusted information, build economies of scale, and create alignment and impact among the heads of traditional city environmental agencies, sustainability departments, or mayor’s office or city council special initiatives. By 2022, this powerful network represented over 250 cities in North America with over 2,000 members who serve over 100 million residents. Acting like a network allowed USDN to create a small organization with an enormous reach. With fewer than 25 employees, USDN leverages the impact of thousands of members on behalf of millions of residents. This network approach works because USDN requires its members to be actively involved in developing and maintaining the network. With many boats in the water, USDN can funnel and magnify the actions of its members to a much more significant impact.

3. Lead like a movement:

Bring collaborators together and point them in a unified direction

Movements allow us to think greater and change our relationship with the world. We often think of social movements in terms of activists and politics; but many successful companies, even ones we don’t necessarily think of as impact-driven brands, have built social movements into their work (Apple’s "Think Different" campaign as an example). Leading like a movement is where you’ll seriously heighten the impact of the system you’ve come to understand, leverage the network you’ve gathered, and harness powerful forces to use for change. You’re tapping into people’s deeper needs and desires for creating a better world for themselves — even if it’s hard.

Leading like a movement role model

Airbnb is a great example of a brand that is not impact-driven on the surface but leads like a movement, nonetheless. It’s not just perceived as a hotel chain — it’s also seen as part of a cultural experience. Without an actual product, it couldn’t simply make top-down decisions on how people would use its services to travel. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that it started — a nonprofit that connects “people to places to stay in times of crisis.” With this organization, Airbnb has formed partnerships with the Red Cross, Mercy Corps and other relief organizations. Furthermore, with the COVID-19 pandemic and outbreak of war in Ukraine, donating to to provide stays for essential workers and refugees became a powerful way for individuals across the world to contribute to social causes. This new organization and its focus show that partnerships and movement leadership are only becoming more important to Airbnb’s work into the future.

So, what does this mean?

We frequently tell our clients, “Uncomfortable does not have to mean unnavigable.” To further our intersection metaphor, there is a map to this work and even a route we recommend you follow. But you, and you alone, have to walk it. That’s where it gets complex — that’s where you have choices. Think of it as a red pill/blue pill scenario from The Matrix. Are you ready to actually see the truth? Or, even simpler, are you ready to think about the work you do in a new way, with new possibilities?

To greater challenges, we collectively bring better solutions. That, we’d like to believe, is our collective story.