Our world today is full of increasingly complex, morally challenging, and fluid questions about how we act, who has or should have power, and what issues we should and can legitimately engage in. These questions range from the climate crisis to "Black Lives Matter" to China's rise and "decolonising aid." Each is significant, and each deserves sufficient time and attention to allow for changes in behaviour, perspectives, and values. Yet they frequently collide, limiting the space and time available for society to adapt.
"A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise" - Wikipedia
These challenges are often called "wicked problems" in the social sciences because they are difficult or impossible to solve. Solutions to these problems typically reveal additional, challenging questions that must be addressed to find a solution. Another term used to describe the increasing complexity is a VUCA environment. VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments - has become a buzzword in business, government, and non-profits to describe our complex world. We hope that by naming the questions and environments surrounding us, we will identify or develop a set of tools and skills to help us navigate these environments. This idea of a VUCA environment has given rise to a plethora of frameworks and approaches for leading in a VUCA world and consultancies that offer organisations solutions for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Do these tools, however, make a difference? Are these the skills we need to succeed in our world at the end of the day?
I thought so. Or, at the very least, I believed that honing those skills and comprehending the frameworks was critical to my effectiveness as a leader. However, as I reflect on my recent and previous successes and failures, I'm growing increasingly sceptical that these frameworks have truly aided me in navigating this increasingly complex world. As a white male in his late thirties, I come from a privileged background and one that I can no longer deny. Still, I was raised by a socially active mother who was a strong feminist, a proponent of the climate emergency before it was a thing, and who instilled in me the importance of addressing inequality in this world. I can almost forgive myself for thinking I already had the tools to navigate today's complex world.
Yet, after my successes and, more importantly, failures in leadership and change, I am acutely aware that I am missing several tools. More importantly, the frameworks and models I have relied on only provide partial answers to questions and challenges posed by today's VUCA environment or wicked problems for businesses, organisations, and society. As a leader, how do you approach issues such as diversity, redundancy, strategy changes, and a slew of other complex issues that have arisen as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, will never present one right answer. In fact, most of the time, there won’t be a good answer, just a pile of bad ones. As Barak Obama has noted, problems that reach the President do not tend to have a simple solution, otherwise, someone else would have dealt with them. The same goes for leaders in any position. Problems that reach you are not going to have a simple solution. If they did someone else would have taken a decision.
What can we do if frameworks and tools developed through training aren't the answer?
Whether you are a leader or a member of an organisation, I believe there is a way to think about your actions that can help you shape your decisions and navigate today's complex and changing world constructively. It is more of a collection of related questions that can help guide your decisions as you navigate the complexities of your situation. After all, we are all a part of the system, and we can only start where we are.
These three equally balanced questions, shaped like an equilateral triangle, ask if you understand your identity in a given situation, what your intent is in that moment, and if your actions (including inaction) are consistent - your integrity. These questions reinforce one another and provide a reference point for operating in an uncertain and complex situation. Asking yourself these questions can help you understand what you should do as an individual and whether your decisions will benefit the people you are working with or trying to support.
Bringing these three questions to life requires effort. Understanding what these questions mean to you is essential to effectively guide your actions when confronted with a complex and challenging situation. I can attest to this challenge, having committed to addressing issues of equity and diversity in an organisation I served, only to disappoint my colleagues and peers continually because I hadn't done my homework. I wasn't sure what my identity was, especially what power I had to guide change. Nor was I clear on how to act with integrity to sustain momentum by honestly explaining the challenges I faced in moving this important agenda. It was a failure that disappointed and let down colleagues and a mistake I'd like to avoid in the future, though I'm sure I'll make other errors along the way.
What can you do to work on yourself to understand how you would answer these questions?
Fortunately, numerous authors and sources exist to help you develop and evolve your answers to these questions. Let's start with identity.
Identity. This is who you are. It is what is important to you. It is the 'why,' in the words of Simon Sinek, at the core of your personality. To find your "why," consider Simon Sinek's work or Robert Dilts' work on Success Factor Modeling. Many people find it beneficial to take a piece of A4 paper, lay it horizontally on a table, and draw a line across the middle. From there, you chart your life's journey from birth on the left to the present on the right. Everything good goes above, and everything bad goes below. Then you ask yourself, "When have you felt the most capable?" When have you struggled the most? What was missing in the difficult times and present in the good times? Is there a common thread that connects the good and the bad? This is your identity.
Intent. This is what you bring to the discussion, what you hope to accomplish. You have no control over how others perceive you or the intention they bring into the room, but you do have control over your own. Setting your intent, or taking a moment to reflect on how you want to be in a given situation, is critical in determining who you are. We frequently refer to leadership behaviours as authentic when a leader's intent matches their identity and the integrity of their actions. That doesn't mean that every action or decision will make everyone happy. People will be disappointed. However, I’ve found that people tend to recognise when you approach a situation with positive intent and are honest about who you are and what you are trying to achieve. I learnt this the hard way, as I tried to work on diversity from my leadership role, and the gap between what I said, my intent, and what I could do, became increasingly large.
Integrity. Do I act in a way that is in line with my values? In a nutshell, is there consistency between what you believe is important, starting with your identity, and what you do? Is my behaviour consistent with my team-building beliefs, or is it misaligned? We lack integrity when our actions do not match our identity. What is important is that you recognise which actions give you a sense of integrity and which actions limit and undermine your sense of self. This isn't always easy; in the last two years, I've had to make several difficult personnel decisions. I remember feeling like the first set lacked integrity because it was imposed on me and didn't align with my identity. The second round, while equally unpleasant, felt more in line with my identity and intent. Because of this alignment, I was able to make these decisions knowing that I was making the best decision in a bad situation based on my value set. Nonetheless, the actions (redundancies and restructuring) were unpleasant.
It is impossible in today's world, or I suspect even in years gone by, to consistently find the right response to every situation. As individuals of any race, creed, or background, who wish to make the world a better place, our job is to take actions that seek to disrupt the system constructively. "We know that you cannot control a complex system, only disrupt it. They are small-scale disturbances, not too disruptive, designed to prompt learning about the next move." By moving away from fixed frameworks and models of leadership towards a focus on ways of thinking, we create the space to respond positively to the complexity that we face today and will face in the future.
At the end of the day, it is often impossible to “get it right”, as the wickedness of the problem will defeat all research, preparation, and reflection. Instead, by being clear about your identity, holding the right intention, and acting with integrity, you can achieve the best outcome (which still might feel crap and be crap). If your intentions are to genuinely learn, do no harm, act honestly and openly, and commit to real action that probably trumps everything else.
I would like to acknowledge the inputs and contributions of Ian Vale (for articulating the three I's framework), David Hopkins for his insights, and Rajan Rasaiah for making sure we all speak to each other.