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It is said that we are living in a VUCAworld – one characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  This somewhat unpleasant sounding acronym originated at the U.S. Army War College.  Originally used to articulate life after the Cold War, VUCA hits the nail on the head for many, if not all, sectors, industries, companies and colleagues today.  Perhaps, though, it’s nothing new: uncertainty and complexity have always featured in the human condition.  We are simply not omniscient nor omnipotent – a reality that persists despite the advent of the fourth industrial revolution with the access to the powerful Big Data it affords. 

While we have always been living in a VUCA world to some extent, it does seem that awareness of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in professional life is heightened.  For example, the British Health and Safety Executive reports that the top 6 causes of stress at work today are:

1.Inability to cope with job demands (i.e. volatility);
2. Inability to control the way one works (i.e. uncertainty);
3.Not receiving enough information and support (i.e. ambiguity)
4.Relationship troubles (i.e. volatility);
5.Not fully understanding role and responsibilities (i.e. ambiguity); and
6.Not being engaged when a business is going through change (i.e. uncertainty). 

In response to the pronounced stressors of our time, excellent work is being done by HR mental health champions to cultivate personal resilience.  But in order to ensure that whole teams, departments and companies thrive in this VUCA world, an additional support is needed – one which leads with great questions. 

In order to appreciate the value of questions in our time of uncertainty, one more feature of the contemporary work landscape needs to be filled in: We need to talk about wicked problems.

The concept of ‘wicked problems’ comes from the Leadership and Management literature and can be traced back to the work of Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, professors of design and planning at U.C. Berkely in the 1970’s.  A wicked problem, in contrast to a ‘tame’ problem, is highly complex, uncertain, and novel.  While tame problems may be complex to some degree, they are likely to have occurred before and can be resolved by unilinear acts. If you have a tame problem, such as needing to fill a vacancy for example, in order to succeed in the task at hand you simply need to roll out a process and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Wicked problems are different.  Due to their complexity and uncertainty, quick answers and pre-baked solutions often come up short.  Instead, when faced with a wicked problem, questions that draw out diverse perspectives from across a collective (i.e. team or company) are the best tool for the job. Wicked problems are just too complex for one person’s answers. They require more than tried and tested processes that were designed in a previous age – even if that previous age was only 6 months ago.  Instead, wicked problems need to be met with great questions that stimulate a collective effort. As Keith Grint, of Warwick Business School, Oxford University, and wicked problems expert puts it,

…Since Wicked Problems are partly defined by the absence of an answer on the part of the  leader then it behoves the individual leader to engage the collective in an attempt to come to terms with the problem. In other words, Wicked Problems require the transfer of authority from individual to collective because only collective engagement can hope to address the problem.

When the uncertainty and complexity of wicked problems is present, your best tool for the job isn’t an answer or a process – it’s a question. More specifically, it’s a question that draws out the wisdom of a collective. Further, the more diverse that collective, the higher the quality of the ‘wisdom in the room’.

The way to help our teams remain grounded and effective in this VUCA world of work – in fact, the very way to help our companies and people succeed – is to approach colleague engagement as a marriage of curiosity and diversity.  Curiosity is needed as it is the wellspring of the questions that the wicked problems we face call for. But diversity too is essential, not only because inclusivity and equality are right and good, but because in order to respond well to complexity and uncertainty we must ask questions that draw out the nuanced wisdom that can only come from a diverse collective. 

In short, the road to corporate flourishing today is paved with diversity of thought.  The exciting work of navigating this road is found in building up your powerfully diverse teams and then crafting high-quality questions that draw out their wisdom. Anything less is just business as usual in a world that is highly unusual.

Dr. Brennan Jacoby, Philosopher and Founder – Philosophy at Work

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