There is the theoretical and the practical. Problems fall into three theoretical categories: the critical, the tame and the wicked. Critical problems are based around a crisis, tame problems are ‘known’ solved with expertise and know how.
Wicked problems are the intractable: unclear causes, little problem definition and no known solution. They are over-represented in public policy: environmental, health and education, epidemics and pandemics, the drug trade and social injustice.
Tame problems are easy, critical problems have to be solved, and wicked problems are unsolvable. But what if they are wicked and have to be solved? What if they are critical and wicked?
Sometimes you just need to be practical but traditional methods don’t work well. In simple problems you know where to start, apply process, resources and time. Eventually you will get to an end point.
Complicated problems are simple problems on scale – more process, resources, and time. They are ideal for a few senior managers to deliver using large teams and standard methodologies.
“That approach is not sound in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, the hallmarks of complexity,” says John Glenn, Kiah Consulting managing director.
“It seems safe but it simply doesn’t work, lacking the flexibility and agility to adapt to changing circumstances, thus contributing to the challenges rather than resolving them.”
If it’s urgent, critical or not working, you are already in unsafe territory. ‘Playing it safe’ is already unsafe. You need to move, make things happen, get approvals and execute. Doing what you have always done isn’t the answer.
“We don’t throw away the old tools, we adapt them for the circumstances and apply them in new ways,” says Glenn.
In adopting old tools in new ways, Kiah have, for example, integrated design thinking with traditional facilitation and consulting. They find it useful in dealing with complexity, and in breaking deadlocks, stalemates and intransigence. They call the approach Integrative Development (InD™).
Dealing with complexity can’t be done tactically. Complexity overwhelms tactics and events drive you, you don’t drive to outcomes. You need coherent activity, a strategy.
Strategy is difficult informed by too many textbooks and old generals. A phrase from a book called Good Strategy, Bad Strategy resonates, ‘you don’t have to be a movie director to know it’s a bad movie’.
It must be more than a plethora of documents and detailed plans. It must provide clarity of purpose and coherent pathways if it is to make sense out of chaos. Strategy is about objectives, boundaries, and manoeuvrability.
While the approach delivers a plan of coherent action by a persuaded community, it matters little if it isn’t executable.
“Executing executable strategies” requires understanding of the interests of stakeholders, the events that influence the strategy and the strategy itself. You need to understand how to engage, persuade and influence those stakeholders, interests and events.
Or the execution of the strategy collapses.
Kiah’s approach to delivering complex strategies is built on its success in dealing with complex negotiations, and their learnings at Harvard and Edinburgh Business Schools, amongst other places.
Complex strategies are multi-dimensional, not straight lines, and Kiah uses a simple triangle to explain its approach.
- The outline strategy is the apex what activities will be done when, the pathways, the blockers to avoid and the boundaries within which one must stay. This is creating the right environment, in the right context and unfolding the engagement in a way that moves towards success.
- Alignment is at one corner. The understanding of interests, issues and influences. These must be aligned, or addressed, for the strategy to be successful. An often-repeated mantra by a Kiah consultant is ‘when I understand your perspective my perspective changes.’
- Engagement is the third point. Engagement is delivery. Different approaches for different problems. Sometimes many approaches for the one problem at different times: project management, crisis management, communication, and negotiation are a few of Kiah’s tools.
To adopt a military saying, no plans survives first contact. Multi-dimensional strategies adapt.
The key to success in complex and volatile environments is manoeuvrability. Things change. So should your plan.
If the problem you face allows the time to muddle along with long and large programs, with detailed methodologies designed around someone else’s problem, with the attendant team, you will be busy.
But if the problem is urgent and critical, and you must act, you need to plan, act and adjust.
Sometimes being too safe is simply unsafe never has this been more true.
A dash of courage
Glenn acknowledges that Kiah isn’t for everyone. “If you don’t want to go somewhere different don’t call us,” he says. ‘It would be like calling your travel agent for advice on self-isolation.’
To lead requires courage. A leader will take organisations in new directions away from the traditional and normal, the safety of the past and the comfort of groupthink. Relying on past practices isn’t going to resolve new problems or deal with complexity and change well.
After all, it is the choices of the past that created the problem.
Kiah is sharing this, and a range of other insights, through its online Kiah Insight Program. Take a look at the free Introduction to Multi-Dimensional Strategic Negotiation Masterclass, and other learning opportunities on the Kiah Learning Academy.