In recent years – and even more so in recent months – the business landscape has changed dramatically.
It has become more global, more complex, faster-paced and less predictable.
The competing and conflicting challenges that leaders face today have morphed from the ‘tame’, if complicated, issues that could be tackled successfully using tried and tested procedures into a new set of ‘wicked’ problems that are much more complex and require new ways of working.
Wicked problems are ambiguous and often leaders have no clear sense of what they actually are or may become. They are novel and have not been experienced in quite this way before.
But in solving one aspect of such challenges, leaders frequently create new ones, not least because a given aspect may be embedded within another. In reality, there may not even be a proper solution at all – only better or worse developments.
Examples of potential wicked problems that leaders face include:
- How to develop the performance of board members when the chief executive is the key issue
- How to make dramatic cost reductions in the business, while maintaining engagement scores
- How to launch a new product or service, while addressing the needs of employees, shareholders and the wider community, all of whom have different agendas.
While such challenges have always existed, they are rapidly becoming more wicked than tame. Many of the tried and tested solutions of the past no longer work and most traditional ways of operating are too slow, too insular or not sufficiently innovative to be effective in today’s world.
Therefore, without fresh attitudes, behaviours and skills to negotiate this changing organisational landscape, leaders, which include heads of HR, will not be able to succeed.
But it is worth bearing in mind that HR professionals have an unparalleled range of options, and experience, to help deliver and drive this kind of change, which means that they are set to become more important perhaps than ever before.
Here are three possible approaches that HR directors can take to succeed:
1. Broaden your horizons to add strategic value to the business
Leaders need to be able to think more strategically and find ways to unearth what they cannot usually see when stuck in the frenetic, often chaotic and narrow focus of daily organisational life.
When it comes to complex issues, it is important to be able to see the bigger picture, how things connect and identify what is coming down the line in order to anticipate change and scenario-plan.
Leaders also need to be able to understand how they fit into a bigger system, whether that is their own organisation, their sector, country or beyond.
For HR bosses, now is the time to balance your functional specialist role with that of business generalist so that you can provide deep and targeted insights on wicked problems. This means seeing beyond the current boundaries of your own specialism and the traditional HR brief.
In practice, it is about taking an active interest in all things global, technological and/or social in order to anticipate macro-trends, which may become game-changers for your industry, organisation or the HR function itself.
It also entails reading more widely than simply the HR trade press to gain a deeper understanding of business issues as well as networking with people who operate both outside of the HR department and your industry sector.
Talking to people who are ‘not like us’ will help you to break out of the homogonous networks that so many of us are involved in but which are self-limiting.
The most successful HR leaders have inquiring, curious and expansive minds that are keen to explore the outside world and bring new ideas and insights back into the business.
2. Ensure the creation of a ‘leaderful’ organisation
A command-and-control leadership style, especially if it is enacted by one person at the top, no longer works if trying to manage wicked problems.
Today’s environment and its challenges are too complex for this kind of approach, but this situation has a number of practical implications for HR. Firstly, HR practitioners must understand the need to be business leaders first before being specialists.
Secondly, HR as a function must bring its influence to bear on the business in order to ensure that the leadership capabilities of a much wider group of people are developed than has traditionally been the case in order to create a ‘leaderful’ organisation.
The issue is that, because there is currently too much focus on developing small numbers of individual leaders, the formal and informal knowledge, skills and experience of everyone else are not effectively harnessed to help with problem-solving.
3. Accept that intuition is a necessary and useful business skill to have
Leaders should try to develop their intuition as a business skill because wicked challenges cannot be solved by data and ‘left brain’ approaches to problem-solving alone.
Some of our recent research (The changing leadership landscape, 2011
) revealed that 85% of leaders believe too much emphasis is placed on data when making decisions, and that intuition is not sufficiently valued as a decision-making tool – even though a lot of decisions are taken that way.
In light of this, HR leaders would be advised to start developing their own intuitive decision-making skills, along with those of their teams, in order to respond nimbly to urgent issues. They should also explicitly recognise intuition as a core competence required by today’s leaders and encourage its active development.
Such activity could take the form of a workshop on ‘Making wise business decisions’, for example, which covers both left and right brain approaches.
But HR leaders should also explore ways in which their intuition about what is right for the business or not can be heard. Too often this voice is hidden behind inflexible and bureaucratic processes and procedures as well as reams of data that only serve to hamper agility.
The issue is that the day-to-day and strategic demands placed upon HR as a profession have grown significantly. Today’s complex operating environment requires a different leadership approach to navigate it successfully and we should be careful not put our head in the sand over the fact that each of us now needs to behave differently.
More important than ever is HR’s ability to help boost productivity, growth and business performance. So are you ready for the challenges ahead?
Helena Clayton is principal consultant at performance management consultancy, Blue Sky Performance Improvement.