Working Fearlessly in the Face of Wicked Problems


In her speech and interaction with Megan Reitz, Amy Edmondson talks about the problem-solving zone to make progress through these challenging times.

A sense of psychological safety is central to working fearlessly. It encompasses the minute decisions that people make in the workplace about whether and when to speak up with their ideas, concerns, questions and mistakes. Working fearlessly is more than just logical safety. Being brave, candid, direct, curious but also biased toward action, being passionate, purposeful, willingness to experiment comes under working fearlessly. Right now, this is vital to reimagining the future. It is a mindset about relating to each other with curiosity and empathy. It is being persistent, resourceful and resilient in the face of frustration, which is part of life in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situation.

Some people are experiencing a drop in psychological safety during this pandemic, but that is not the full story. The lack of psychological safety in the workplace is subtle and hidden. A moment of silence is invisible, as one cannot know when someone holds back on something that could have been mission-critical. It is experienced alone, and its primary concern is about what others will think, especially those higher in the hierarchy. A lack of psychological safety inhibits our ability to innovate, to build the future. On the other hand, the fear related to COVID-19 is obvious and explicit, and shared by all, albeit with many different flavours on what it means for some versus others. The primary concern with that fear is about what we can do to alleviate suffering, to find new ways to operate safely, to discover vaccines and treatments, and so forth. This kind of fear that is collective and shared promotes innovation.

We need to be in a state where both urgency and psychological safety are high. That is the problem-solving zone.

Psychological safety is related to urgency. If you don’t have either or if both are low, that can fairly be called anxiety. If psychological safety and the sense of speaking up easily at work are high but with no urgency, this combination is the comfort zone. On the other hand, if there is a high sense of urgency but no psychological safety in the team at work, that is interpersonal anxiety. It is where people are working and understanding what is at stake, but they are still unable to ask for help or to report something that is not working, and that is a risky zone for people to be in. We need to be in a state where both urgency and psychological safety are high. That is the problem-solving zone. This is where we can make progress through these challenging times, to reimagine the future. To sum up, fearless working is fundamentally about problem-solving. 

Wicked problems are the exact opposite of everything we know about business as usual, about routine operations where there is predictability, fairly clear-cut interdependencies, very clear and reasonably stable criteria for what good looks like, and clear lines of authority. Wicked problems are those with radical uncertainty, with complex shifting nonlinear interdependencies, with unclear competing and shifting criteria about what good looks like, and with unclear and conflicting authority, often because multiple agencies and sectors are involved in figuring out how to make progress. So, whereas commanding control or at least reasonable organizational design and structure can work in routine operations, wicked problems call for cross-sector teaming.

Wicked problems cannot be solved by any company, industry, or sector alone. Issues like food or water scarcity are wicked problems for which no individual institution, government or company can provide a solution alone. The pandemic is one of the largest wicked problems any of us have faced in our lifetimes, and it is the most urgent. It is the one that we cannot fail, but have it capture our attention and our activity. Arguably, a much bigger, more chronic and more overwhelming challenge is the challenge of climate change. Somewhere in reimagining the future, we may hopefully use the pandemic as a trigger to step back and think about our responsibilities more generally and more long-term.

Wicked problems are those with radical uncertainty, with complex shifting nonlinear interdependencies, with unclear competing and shifting criteria about what good looks like, and with unclear and conflicting authority, often because multiple agencies and sectors are involved in figuring out how to make progress.

Cross-sector teaming faces barriers in largely two categories, technical and relational. The technical primarily pertains to expertise jargon and technical language. Communicating and collaborating with people from very different areas of expertise than ours is a huge challenge, and it is not just the technical side, but the gulfs in norms and values, and even such simple things as timeframes and assumptions made. We tend to make negative attributions about those on the other side of some boundary or divide. We prefer people who are like us, who have similar backgrounds, who may even look like us, and therefore, cross-sector teaming will not be our strong suit. 

Similarly, more than the technical, we often are blind to the possibility that someone from a different tribe might have something of great value. This is exacerbated by our 21st century pandemic in its own right, which is the over-busy trap. We are too busy to stop and look around and see where there might be a better way. This will cripple us in the face of reimagining the future and trying to do new things and do them better. Hence, thinking about wicked problems and about building an uncertain future together is an ultimate leadership challenge. 

A leader is not a mythical person at the top of a pyramid. All of us are leaders, and we need to sit up straight and think about how we can help. If we are to address the relational, psychological, and technical challenges, looking at both how to motivate people and how to remove barriers, it has to start with the notion of leading by fostering an adaptable vision. It implies appealing to values, being crystal clear on what is at stake, but recognizing that you do not see the whole picture, and understandably so, as you are in one sector, one expertise, and need input from others. 

Leaders also need to celebrate changes in that vision as more is learned by working together. The purpose of doing this is to give people permission to take interpersonal risks and even content risks, technical risks, and encourage relational bonding across boundaries. It requires deliberate effort to bring people together to cultivate and even facilitate knowledge-sharing across domains in order to experiment with things together, to use boundary objects to engage in discussions and tests of what works. This recognition of the way we will be working together in building an uncertain future together is iterative. It will be experimental. We need to learn from what we experiment and recognize that a great deal of what we try will fail, and that is part and parcel of this process.

The individuals will always be subject to cognitive biases, fixation, passions and so forth. That is why fostering an adaptable vision is a team sport.

The 70-day Chilean mine rescue efforts that successfully ended in October of 2010 is a great example of teamwork. People teaming up across disciplines of all kinds to do something was widely considered to be impossible by the technical experts in the domain. This case of technical, emotional and teaming triumph suggests a recipe for all of us to take in reimagining the future together. It consists of four simple steps. The first step is to aim high and be ambitious. In the second step, teaming up is essential for achieving ambitious goals in these challenging times. It should not mean teaming up with people from similar cultural and professional backgrounds, but across professional domains, across expertise, across sectors, and geographies. The diversity of background allows for trying different things. 

Many experiments will fail in the process, so the third step is to fail. It means try the best to have failures that are smart or intelligent. Those are the undesired outcomes but results of worthy experiments. Those are the results of our trying the best we can with a hypothesis that could work. Hence, failing means trying to avoid preventable failures and pushing for as many and as quick intelligent failures as one possibly can. 

The fourth step is to learn fast. Data should always be well utilised to redesign the next experiment. With disciplined and collaborative efforts, teams should then come together to figure out as quickly as possible what is next, as we reiterate forward. There is also a fifth step, which is to repeat. The cycle of going through the four steps never stops if we are working fearlessly in the face of wicked problems.

Megan Reitz in Conversation with Amy Edmondson

Megan Reitz: What can be done to empower workers who are punished by their workplaces when they speak up about the working conditions?

Amy C. Edmondson: If there were ever a time not to punish people for speaking up, for speaking truth to power, it is now. People are not speaking up with small suggestions for improving processes. They are speaking up with their own lives on the line. When we say that it is unacceptable, we are doing a disservice to them, their organization, and society. This is the time when we should invite people to hear their concerns. Managers who don’t recognize the absolute necessity of hearing from people, they miss that it isn’t about whether or not their organization looks bad, this is about these valuable ideas and data for improvement that they are getting for free from their staff. This is a time where your focus shouldn’t be on the organization’s image but on how to learn fast.

Megan Reitz: What can people do to build psychological safety or promote effective teaming when they are not at the top of the organization or in a position of obvious power? 

Amy C. Edmondson: It is a misunderstanding of your power when you think you don’t have power because each of us has power. We may not have power over the whole world or those above us, but we do influence our teams, our colleagues, and our families and communities. The influence you hold in creating psychological safety for others is profound. 

Essentially, there are three things you can do. One, it is really all about framing. It is the extent to which you can say and do things that help others adopt a frame that says that we are in the trenches learning and experimenting together, and therefore, any one of us could have a valuable idea or observation that will change the game. This is the frame that we need to be working in. Anyone can help share that frame as the appropriate frame for today’s world. 

Second, ask questions. Come from a place of curiosity, and simply ask your colleagues, your co-workers, even your managers good questions. It gives them that moment of being listened to, which is a moment of psychological safety, and of course, listen to the answer. So, ask good questions that draw them out, and then finally respond in a way that shows interest and care about what you have just heard. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. It just means you have to be interested in what they have to say. That creates psychological safety right where you are.

Megan Reitz: Have you seen an organization that has damaged psychological safety through their actions in the process of dealing with this pandemic?

Amy C. Edmondson: It is not an example of a company. Dr. Rick Bright is a vaccine expert who was fired by the U.S. government for essentially speaking up with truth early in this pandemic. Today, he has filed a whistleblower complaint to describe what happened. That is clearly damaging. Someday, we might be able to trace back to actual lives affected in this way. 

We are also reading about Amazon workers feeling unsafe and under-protected in their equipment in their warehouses and other jobs. The VP recently left his job as a result of that. Anytime we read about organizations that seem to be favouring profitability over human life, it leaves a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. These companies are squandering the opportunity that a crisis brings to do the right thing and improve rather than harm their reputation.

Megan Reitz: Besides the Chilean mine rescue mission, have you seen people team up in other places to solve wicked problems?

Amy C. Edmondson: My colleagues and I studied about 12 projects that could all be under the category of wicked problems that require cross-sector teaming. Some of those projects were remarkably failures, but a handful of them were successful. One of the projects was the creation of a brand new city from scratch in Central Florida called Lake Nona Medical City. That was one of the more stunningly successful projects where a new city was developed to be a healthcare cluster with research, care delivery, medical products, and an R&D campus in a 7000-acre greenfield setting. One of the major things that made it a success was, being very deliberate about bringing people together across sectors at all levels for different reasons, and a leadership team at the top to keep connecting with the values and figuring out what they could do together to help the actual work in execution in this unclear domain to proceed. Many of the structured thoughtful sessions throughout the ranks to get people to team up and understand each other and truly discover possibilities that nobody came-in knowing existed because they had to come from that emergent creativity at the boundaries.

Megan Reitz: What happens when you want to foster this adaptable vision but you have people that cannot seem to adapt and change?

Amy C. Edmondson: The individuals will always be subject to cognitive biases, fixation, passions, and so forth. That is why fostering an adaptable vision is a team sport. It is not something that you can necessarily do easily on your own. This is why you need multiple people. For instance, you need people to jar you out of some fixation that may have outlived its usefulness, and recognize that the thing that can remain stable is our values and our passion for making a difference. What that’s going to look like and how it’s going to unfold should adapt from time to time, or else, we will fail. So, you can’t easily do it yourself. You need people to listen and get input from a diverse team.

Megan Reitz: Many of us are now finding ourselves in a virtual setting, so is it different, or is it the same kind of element? What guidance, advice, observations do you have around psychological safety in virtual settings?

Amy C. Edmondson: It is different and the same. It is the same in that the human experience of psychological safety is a very real and palpable thing, and having that expectation and belief that you can speak up is profound, and doesn’t differ all that much across situations. However, the invisibleness of it is, even more, the case in virtual work, so never assume that you know what is going on for someone. We have a higher premium on the need to check in just before we jump right in with the content or the idea or the requests that we have. We have to create that extra little space for people to say where they are and recognize that that can be hard for people. So, just a little extra effort, a little extra reframing around the nature of the work today is required.

Megan Reitz: I would request you to sum up any key points that you want to.

Amy C. Edmondson: “We are called upon to be architects of the future, not its victims.” This is a quote by a personal hero of mine, Buckminster Fuller. It is a team sport. Being architects of the future means being immensely collaborative, challenging, iterative, full of learning along the way, and something that we will do together. The pandemic is merely a wakeup call because you can’t miss it, you can’t ignore it, but we face many such wicked problems that we will need to team up together to reimagine the future. 

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