Compelling, wicked questions


Mountain top near Chamonix, France

Many projects are started, usually, to address some form of perceived issue. The imperative seems to be that a certain way of working, a business process, an IT solution –and so on- should be changed in some form to improve what is being done to meet the business’ strategic goals.

Usually there is an agreed governance process via which the project’s objectives, outcomes, progress, issues, risks and so on are being monitored and ‘managed’ in relation to other similar projects.

Key is that projects require business people (that also have normal day-to-day delivery accountabilities) to spend some of their time working on the project. And that, often, is a real problem. After all, time is limited. So, people tend to choose which projects do and which don’t deserve their discretionary time. The governance structures are rarely able to address this satisfactorily, apart perhaps for the 2-3 main initiatives (often sponsored by a C-level executive). There are simply too many things going on at the same time. One has to prioritise.

A helpful approach to address this real-life problem, could be to also side-step the formal process. We could agree the key questions we need to answer to address the main business issues. And to formulate questions that are compelling enough for the key stakeholders to choose to engage with it.

There are different types of question we can ask. And, the type we choose can be pivotal for the level of engagement of the organisation with and the possible outcomes for that question. Here I see that often a great opportunity is often missed.

I notice that people typically ask what one could call ‘linear questions’. These are questions that suggest there is a clear, achievable solution. And, when answering this type of question, we can identify multiple initiatives that would, indeed, achieve the required outcome. We identify these initiatives, and ‘implement’ them. A real problem, though, with this type of questions, is that they suggest there is no paradox or contradiction in the issues we are addressing. And that is no reflection of the reality of most processes of human interaction. There often are multiple dynamics pulling in different directions. It is a messy playing field.

Many of those tensions or contradictions are inherent in any organisation and therefore cannot simply be “designed out” of the ways-of-working.

Here an example from the British National Health Service (NHS).

Like many organisations, the NHS operates with ‘targets’. These targets aim to measure the processes that are key to the service delivery. One of those targets is ‘waiting time’ (say for hip replacements): the time people have to wait after having been referred to start the procedure (of having their hip replaced). But, these targets often are impossible to meet. One key cause, as identified, is that there are simply no beds available in the hospitals to move these patients into. So, the waiting time increases. Therefore, to answer the question ‘how can we reduce waiting time (for hip replacements)?’, people were moved quicker out of their beds after a procedure. And -indeed! – the waiting times came down. But, the readmission rate of people having had hip replacements went up! So, a new target was imposed to reduce readmission rates. And this caused a serious issue: these two targets -based on separate, linear questions- independently, clearly work against each other.

An alternative approach is to formulate a question with a built-in paradox. These are often called ‘wicked questions’. So, instead of asking ‘how can we reduce waiting times?’ or ‘how can we reduce readmission rates’, we can ask ‘How can we reduce waiting times and readmission rates at the same time?’.

There are no easy answers to this type of question. Because this tension is inherent to the health care provision business model. Very much like the tension between ‘productivity’ and ‘workplace safety’ on a manufacturing facility. Or between ‘business as usual’ and ‘project work’ in an organisation going through change initiatives.

One cannot only pull on one side, because then the other side will fall over. The only way to work with, rather than against, this tension is to acknowledge that it is an inherent tension. We could create an environment where all players can engage into a continuous conversation around this inherent tension. And agree ways-of-working to manage the tension as a matter of course. This, of course, only works if the questions asked is important enough for the people to choose to engage with and overcome their assumptions and inhibitions.

My recommendation is to spend time with the key stakeholders to understand what the issues are. And explore what the inherent tensions could be, that seem to be underpinning these issues. Then, work with these stakeholders to formulate compelling, wicked questions that needs answering to address these tensions. There are fun ways to to that! All open a space for the people in the organisation to discuss these questions freely. Perhaps formulate new questions that come out of these conversations. And then allow time for the conversation triggered by these questions to evolve. This inherently changes the conversation in the organisation. But, at the onset, we won’t know where it will converge on to. And how long this process of convergence will take.

Therefore, there is a key role for leaders in the organisation to keep the conversation open, to not do what comes naturally and close it down to meet the budget cycle or steering group meeting and so on.

And that is difficult and is an inherent tension in many organisations.

So, “how can I allow meaningful conversation to evolve, whilst at the same time follow my company’s established governance processes?”.

That is a nice wicked question!

Can you see the inherent tensions in your organisation? And, can you think about wicked questions that would address those? Are these questions compelling enough for people to choose to engage with?