Cleveland Justis and Daniel Student
Published 10 months ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Rodnae Productions
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,
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
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
or climate change itself can be a destructive
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:
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
Thinking like a
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Airbnb.org — a nonprofit that connects “people to places to stay in times
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
donating to Airbnb.org 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.
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.
Published Mar 28, 2023 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Cleveland Justis has been an accomplished organizational leader in the environmental and entrepreneurial arenas for the past 30 years. He is principal at Potrero Group, supporting innovators through rigorous organizational planning and effectiveness. Cleveland also directs UC Davis’s Executive Leadership program and teaches entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley. He consults widely with companies, philanthropists, nonprofits, and government organizations; and is co-author of "Don't Lead Alone" (Fast Company Press, Feb 2023).
Daniel Student has been a cultural, environmental, and social sector leader for over 20 years and brings a unique cross section of creative and business strategy to his work. He currently serves as a senior consultant for Potrero Group, leading strategic planning and new program development; and is co-author of "Don't Lead Alone" (Fast Company Press, Feb 2023). Previously, he served as producing artistic director for Plays & Players Theatre and co-created a series of courses on multinational cross-cultural teams for UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education.