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Wicked problems: do we get the leaders we deserve?

Jim Dickinson looks at the work of the late David Watson to ask what kind of leadership can solve the sector's wicked problems
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“However rational and well-understood a college or university strategy may be, this does not prevent the emergence, and the intransigence of certain issues which it cannot apparently resolve.”

Depending on your perspective, the late David Watson’s turn-of-the-millenium “Managing in Higher Education: The Wicked Issues” is either reassuring – insofar as it seems that nothing changes – or horrifying, for exactly the same reason.

Watson used his piece in “Higher Education Quarterly” to try out some ideas for a forthcoming book, presenting a taxonomy of wicked problems faced by managers in universities and colleges. Managing to be both “of its time” and timeless all at once, it’s a fascinating canter through some intractables that either suggests we should be comfortable in the chaos, or worried that we are still battling with the same questions some twenty years later.

The size is the thing

Watson’s first group of problems were, he thought, shared with all large and complex enterprises – and in 2000 included car-parking and tobacco-smoking. His basic argument was that when broader social concerns were turned by a university community into staff or student conduct issues, there was a period of time when pockets of the problem just moved, but didn’t instantly go away.

For Watson, that meant charging for on-site car-parking led to disputes with neighbours when car-owning employees chose to clog up adjacent streets, and that the non-smoking policies of large organisations led to “unsightly huddles of addicts clustered around entrances to buildings”.

His basic message was that these “hygiene” factors will manifest as problems for a time, but not forever – people eventually get public transport and give up smoking. It’s a salutary lesson for the SUs and universities that have introduced “Zero Tolerance” policies on everything from harassment to initiation ceremonies – resistance manifests, individual rights are invoked, and sometimes the behaviour just moves off campus or out of buildings – but there is progress eventually, in step with the rest of society. Hold your nerve, he seemed to be saying.

Public progress

He saw a second set of issues as being shared with most public services in the same era – the balance between sector-wide and “plant” bargaining with unions; dealing with planning (or regulatory) authorities; staff stress (and in particular, establishing how much of it is independently employment-related); the scope of professional self-management; pay, pay levels, and especially the relativities of senior staff pay (both to other employees in the same organisation and to similar levels of responsibility in the private sector); and the critique of “new” or “hard” managerialism.

Twenty years ago he argued that stress was probably the issue that aroused “the most heat” and generated “the least light”. It was, for example, “the staff issue most likely to be identified as uniquely problematic in whichever sector, sub-sector or organisation is under scrutiny”, but in education and higher education in particular, was associated with a perceived loss of personal professional control and the “new managerialism”, which today is more commonly expressed as both marketisation and neoliberalism.

Watson didn’t dismiss the charges – but he was critical of suspecting that it was somehow “new”, and that a simplistic return to past would somehow solve things:

It ignores a long line of baronial deans and heads of departments, as well as eccentric and ruthless heads of institutions. If anything, these individuals have been subject to new and timely discipline as a result of modern developments in governance and accountability.

He was particularly critical of supposing that what had been “managed” was “fundamentally to the detriment” of institutions, their members or the society that supported them – including sector-wide priorities like access or expansion. But more than that:

…it depends upon a mythological view of institutional history, as powerful as the myth of Anglo-Saxon freedom was for the early English parliamentarians. Principally it centres around the view that universities and colleges operated effectively in the past and would operate effectively today on a basis of management by “eventual consensus”. As Professor Ted Wragg once joked, “the prospect of a university Senate trying to decide what to do with a free kick on the edge of the penalty area is too awful to contemplate”.

He wasn’t outright dismissive of the metrics issue either. Noting that public service CEOs of all stripe probably become most exercised about league tables, he lamented the public triumphalism by the winners (“much though they may deprecate the methodology in private with their less successful peers”) and angry despair by the losers (whose missions they claimed had been “cruelly distorted by unfair and inappropriate tests”).

Higher education’s objections were (and still are) of two kinds: empirical, relying on the category mistake made in turning measures into goals and targets; and methodological, as the sector “rails against the distortions caused by the choice, weighting, and above all the combination of various statistics”.

Careful not to reject the critiques, Watson nonetheless argued that no amount of collective or individual cries of “foul” would make these exercises go away, as (perhaps largely because of a given public sector’s historical failure to make such a deficit good in other ways) the public undoubtedly see them as “an essential element of the system’s transparency”.

The message seemed to be that accountability to the public (and their politician proxies) was necessary given the numbers – and that UK institutions would “have to keep their nerve, continue to press collectively for methodological improvements, but also work individually to improve in and then publicise their success against the indicators that matter most to them”. Sage advice as we await the results of the TEF review.

It’s different round here

Finally, there were some wicked problems that were distinctively higher education issues. Many, he argued, arose from the special position of students (especially younger students) as members of the institution:

…from noise in the neighbourhood to the kind of prurient publicity attracted by stories such as the recent (rarely verified) wave of headlines about student prostitution”

There were, he noted, “serious concerns” about the “psychological pressures” on students, as well as evidence about their increased “vulnerability to mental health problems”. For Watson, the solution here was for the HEI to accept that the traditional notion of “a student life apart from the stresses and strains of society is now a thing of the past” – yet today it still seems to be the accepted idealised “norm” around which things are organised, and deviations from which are endlessly addressed with funds and initiatives to achieve an unattainable (for some) “student life”.

He also noted that universities and colleges were in almost all cases, places where people lived as well as worked, and wished to derive benefits from that community:

The fact that they are voluntary communities, and almost invariably more heterogeneous than the host society that surrounds them is another source of on the one hand strength and opportunity and on the other threat and tension. The presumption of toleration – of, for example, differences in faith, in sexual orientation and in nationality, as well as of philosophical and political commitment – is central, as is the existence and application of policies, of which equal opportunities and freedom from harassment are vital”

But of the perennial issues, for Watson, the most “central and strategically vital” was freedom of speech and its “professional variant” – academic freedom. These were apparently easy to agree on in theory but much harder in practice – and left to its own devices, freedom to speak out and to hold controversial views was in danger of “perversion into a kind of …silence to prevent self-incrimination”. From time to time, therefore, the issues for Watson required discussion and regulatory intervention, however tiresome.

So what are we going to do?

For Watson, management approaches to these wicked problems fell into three categories. First, there was the “fire-fighting” approach, often coupled with a “propensity not to deal with the problem until it has become a crisis”. This had some apparent advantages: it seemed to ration management effort, tackled the problem “just in time”, and anyway, “the problem might just go away”. On the downside, it did allow matters to get worse, and the problems concerned tended to repeat themselves. And it does lead those concerned about an issue to resort to framing it as a “crisis” – with the all the negativity, defensiveness and blame-allocation that crises imply.

Then there were what Watson called the “strenuous interventionists”, concerned to be seen to take all such issues seriously. But they ran straight into the common feature of “wicked” issues: that there were just not enough resources (certainly within the sector or a given HEI) to put the root causes right – so core problems endlessly re-cycled “and management impotence becomes more and more apparent”.

Better were the “reflective pragmatists”, attempting to apply their and the institution’s values calmly and methodically. For ill-defined problems and ill-definable solutions, feasible plans relied on realistic judgment, the evaluation of creative ideas and crucially trust and credibility between planner and clientele.

And here’s the interesting bit. Careful to avoid to the concept of the (often highly gendered) “genius”, “hero” or “saviour” leader, Watson speculated that the leadership qualities that would be helpful in the future would be self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills:

Much as I have an aversion to management theory as popular psychology (especially when, as here, it is held to have a neuropharmacological basis), I do find this inventory of attributes empirically plausible. Institutional leaders who have succeeded in overcoming apparently intractable problems, do indeed appear to have characteristics like the above.

Emotionally intelligent pragmatism was the name of the game – “often one good has to be allowed to trump another”, and the result was “inevitable disaffection in some quarters”, but at least “choices are seen to be made, energy is spread sensibly, and explanations can be made to the community”.

Such pragmatists, he said, “elected to do least harm”, were “good at spotting when protagonists of extreme points of view are really fighting each other for other forms of redress”, and most importantly, they achieved the “peculiarly academic requirement of leading by enabling”.

Staff, students, the public, the press and politicians certainly look at some issues in HE and conclude that the “crises” they see need more decisive “crisis management”. We’ve also all met a new, earnest leader that is keen to be seen to take seriously every concern, issue, bugbear and problem and be seen to develop action to tackle all of them and more – only to drown under their own good intentions and squander their initial bottle of trust. So maybe Watson was right – that to tackle these wicked problems, we need leaders that can connect with us, be emotionally intelligent and empathetic, and above all be pragmatic in their solutions. Who was it that said we get the leaders we deserve?

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