Conflicting values in political life are nothing new. But as business leaders faced with tackling wicked problems, working with value conflict is increasingly part of our leadership task. This article is the third in a series of four looking at the structural features of wicked problems. In this article I’ll focus on value conflict.

Wicked problems tend to be broad in scope – think back to the example of Facebook and other social-media providers’ wicked problem of how to mediate different stakeholder groups’ views of what constitutes harmful content; at its core is how to simultaneously defend freedom of expression without enabling fake news, hate speech and other harmful content.

A conflict of values amongst stakeholders isn’t just a by-product of the problem’s wickedness; it’s actually a core reason why it’s wicked in the first place. If there’s no one definition of what the problem is, then an acceptable solution becomes even more elusive.

Traditional stakeholder management seeks to find common ground amongst different groups in order to find solutions that are broadly acceptable to all parties. Where this isn’t the case, the goal is to ‘manage’ stakeholders: which is a euphemism for attempting to neutralise their objections enough so that you can do what you had wanted to do all along. The assumption is that the stakeholder is the other. The rationale goes: we have our way of thinking about the problem, the stakeholder has another way of thinking about it, and our work is to try and bring them to our way of thinking. This framework requires leaders who are charismatic visionaries. The vision of a solution is the direction the leader wants to be adopted and the charisma is required to bring this fruition.

Historically, this worked because of the power imbalance between different stakeholder groups. Smaller, under-resourced stakeholders didn’t have access to the communication channels and resources needed to disseminate their message and gain traction in their following. But the liberalisation of our society and the democratisation of communication channels through the internet means that people can come together on an issue-by-issue basis with more power and clout than ever before. The old way to think about stakeholder management in an analogue world doesn’t apply in the digital age. Wicked problems have become even more wicked as power is flattened amongst stakeholders.

If businesses want to act in a more ethical and sustainable manner, they have to take the initiative by working with communities or issue-groups. And from the other side an increase in a community’s or an issue-group’s power carries with it a responsibility to be an equal partner in both defining the problem, and crucially, in the sacrifices and trade-offs necessary to find a solution that everyone can live with. Our role as leaders shifts from one of charismatic visionary to one in which we must help the community do its own work in owning and living with the myriad consequences of the decisions it makes. Take, for example, a community deciding whether to accept that a polluting industrial company remains located in their town. On the one hand, the company may offer highly skilled, well-paid jobs, but on the other, its continued presence poses environmental risks.If the residents want to become equal partners in the decision about whether the company can stay, then they must accept part of the responsibility for dealing with the possible consequences of that decision.

This type of work is what Ron Heifetz at Harvard Business School calls adaptive work and he elegantly argues that it needs a new type of leadership: Adaptive Leadership. Adaptive leadership moves away from the prevailing view that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ towards one in which ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problem’. And as the responsibility for solving the problem is shared, so is the leadership. Adaptive leaders emerge in all shapes and sizes (think Greta Thunberg), and, without ever occupying any formal position of authority, they may be far better at mobilising communities towards meaningful action than any formal leader ever could be. It has always been thus. In every great societal shift, the change has been enabled by boththe formal leaders (political, business, religious) andthe grass-roots leaders who exist in all of our communities.

Adaptive leadership is focussed on a much harder, ethical and sustainable role of helpingstakeholder groups do their own adaptive work. This requires leaders step out of their own stakeholder position and take a broader, more systemic perspective. Rather than manage the behaviour of stakeholders, we uncover the values driving it – and accept that, although these values may not be our own, they do have value. As a consequence, leaders need to become adept at generating alliances, diagnosing the political landscape and managing other authority figures.

Wicked problems aren’t always focussed on external stakeholders. Internal change programme – such as the introduction of a new enterprise-wide software system – that requires people to do their work differently may also be classed as wicked – deceptive, thorny and intractable. If the shift in work taps into something deep-seated about the identity or values of the people responding to it, then the work is adaptive and assuming it can be accomplished by telling and selling won’t work. The same shift in thinking and action about our leadership task is required in these instances.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway is an organisation effectiveness consultant with two decade’s experience working with executives as they grapple with disruptive change and relentless complexity. She helps executive teams increases their adaptive capability as they align their culture to their purpose and as they solve intractable problems.

About Jacqueline Conway