Handling wicked problems

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There are critical problems, tame problems, and wicked problems ― Alex Wood finds a leadership theory that finally offers something of use for the profession.

This year’s Scottish Learning Festival had less buzz, less decisive debate, than previous years. The ministerial contributions combined Panglossian optimism and over-generalisation, but the issue of leadership was attacked head-on by Keith Grint, Professor of public leadership at Warwick University Business School. 

His presentation, Leadership: Enemy of the People?, started from Ibsen’s eponymous play. The mayor’s brother indicates that the new town baths, built to bring business and prosperity, are in fact poisoning the town’s water system. No-one will listen and he is branded an enemy of the people. Prof Grint suggested that the problem for leaders was the nature of the problems with which they grappled.

There are critical problems which require a commander, taking decisive action in self-evident crises. Often even decisively wrong action is better in such situations than no action. Such leadership will work if it is popularly perceived to be for the public good.

Far more common are the tame problems. They require a managerial solution. They may be complicated but are not complex. The leader’s job is to find the manual, follow the procedures and do what has been done before to fix similar problems.

The big problems however are wicked. Wicked problems are complex, problems for which there are no obvious answer, perhaps no right or wrong solution – only better ones or worse ones.

Every school leader, headteacher, head of department, school business manager recognises these. We face them daily, the problem the resolution of which in Department X only creates a new problem in Department Y; the powerful parent whose desired subject choice option for his or her child will screw the subject options of dozens of others.

Prof Grint’s advice is hard. First, we need to learn, not to be more decisive, but less so. We need to learn to reflect. The old cliché, “bring me solutions, not problems”, is the very worst way to approach such issues. Wicked problems do not require leaders with the right answers but leaders able to pose the right questions. Almost by definition, wicked problems are not open to obvious solutions: responsibility for finding solutions requires to be given back to those facing the problem on the ground.

Successful leaders must be leaders of teams, not necessarily the expert but with a team of experts around him or her and able to keep that team working co-operatively. Schools would do well to reflect on Prof Grint’s hypothesis. Except during fire drill, command structures do not work when dealing with either professionals or children. That at least has been learned by most educationalists. 

The assumption persists however that there is a system solution to most problems. Get the system right; identify the good practice that works; find the appropriate page in How Good Is Our School? and apply the lessons. That’s nonsense.

I’m delighted to learn from the business world (or at least its more progressive elements) and I’ll buy Prof Grint’s wicked paradigm, the need to throw the issues back to the practitioners and be there to support them to create their own solutions. We need leadership which acknowledges the strengths and the expertise of all, which rejects the hero leader. But for school leadership, we need more.

There’s a specific, educational dimension and it’s also an ethical dimension. We need to be committed to the ideal of learning for all; a belief that nothing works in schools as organisations unless the human relationships are right; an over-riding sense that what we are doing in education is of supreme importance. We also need a healthy scepticism about most of the theories of leadership.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his recent retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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