Organisational change deals with wicked problems

13 - 1-3Most organisational change efforts are concerned with wicked problems.

When you are dealing with “tame” problems you can use relatively simple approaches, which can be traced back to the industrial age.

When the temperature in your office, for example, is too low and people are feeling cold you can simply introduce the opposite of what produced the problem (heat instead of cold). Eventually, more of the same (heat) will have the desired effect. Similarly, when a production process is not efficient enough, there are known methods to improve this.

Not so with wicked problems.

If you are dealing with a wicked problem – and the chance that you are is high in organisational change – you need a different approach.

You are not sure if you have a wicked problem?

Here’s a check of 10 telltale signs you are dealing with a wicked problem.

  • If you can’t provide a definite formulation of your problem…
  • If you can’t know if you have found the best solution to your problem…
  • If your solutions are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad, better-or-worse…
  • If only time will tell if you have a solution and there is no immediate and no ultimate test, …
  • If every solution you implement is consequential and a “one-shot-operation” that cannot be undone…
  • If there is no exhaustive set of solutions and there might be none(!)…
  • If it seems that you have an essentially unique problem…
  • If it seems the problem could also be considered a symptom of another higher level problem…
  • If the existence of the problem can be explained in various ways…
  • If you feel you can never win, but you can loose (i.e. liability of results of choices you cannot be sure of they are right)…

…you are probably dealing with a wicked problem…

For example: Assume your organisation has a problem of apathy and disengagement among its employees. NB: Recent figures from the Gallop organisation show that almost 60% of the people of an average company (in the USA) are disengaged or actively disengaged.

What to do?

A first-order solution would use the logic of applying the opposite and would probably reinforce and instruct people to increase passion and engagement.

Part of its “wickedness” comes from the fact that these problems are (in part) caused by earlier first-order solutions.

Trying to achieve sleep through will-power in a case of insomnia aggravates it. Telling someone to act spontaneously makes this very act impossible. Instructing employees to have passion and engagement creates a similar paradox.

We are caught in a “Game Without End”. Within first-order change the change is from one behaviour to another within the current system of behaving. Second-order change amounts to a change of the rules of the system and leads to a new way of behaving.

The insomniac is told to make sure to only close his eyes when in a deep sleep. The person terrified of public speaking is told to begin his speech with the remark that he is extremely nervous and will probably forget his lines…

And, on a completely voluntary basis the workforce of the apathetic and disengaged organisation is asked for help in turning around the organisation.

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