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Sense-making in dealing with complex problems, Part 1

Sense-making in dealing with complex problems, Part 1

Note: This Collaboration takes place over two weeks. Students will use this thread to complete their Week 7 initial postings, and their Week 8 responses and individual summaries. Please read the directions carefully.

‘Wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges. They occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact, it‘s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage’.

Camillus (2008, p.100)

‘Leadership is about the “management of meaning,” and that leaders emerge because of their role in framing experience in a way that provides the basis for action; that is, by mobilizing meaning, articulating and defining what has previously remained implicit or unsaid, by inventing images and meanings that provide a focus for new attention and by consolidating, confronting or changing prevailing wisdom’.

Smircich & Morgan (1982, p.2580)

In life as well as in business, problems often involve many stakeholders, and change can lead to more than one possible course of action. Management scholars often refer to these problems in the literature as wicked problems. Consider the various stakeholders who may be impacted by the decision of a metal manufacturer, whose waste products have been linked to health problems, to enter a new geographic region. There are positive impacts for job creation, but also potential negative impacts like pollution and public health. Stakeholders in the business, political and social realms will have differing perspectives on whether the new plant is a positive or negative addition to the community. Politicians may look forward to the possible economic benefits, while healthcare professionals and activists might protest the manufacturer’s potential entry into the area.

As a leader in such situations, your role will be one of shaping meaning and providing a framework in which those impacted can see the benefits of your proposed course of action. You must be concerned about the financial, ethical, legal and political ramifications of your decisions. Would you and your company be resilient enough to withstand problems that arise, such as the negative press that protests might generate? How can you best address the competing needs of different stakeholders?

Pye (2005) describes a case in which the CEO took an approach to change that resulted in his being terminated. What, if anything, could this CEO have done differently that would have changed the outcome of the situation? What new problems might have arisen if a different course of action, or different approach to leadership, were taken? This Collaboration will give you an opportunity to review this case and consider how ideas from the literature can inform your understanding of complex leadership problems like those faced by the CEO studied in the case.

To prepare for this Collaboration:

Reflect on each of the four videos pertaining to creating a culture of change, leading people through change, establishing your personal brand and never wasting a good crisis. These videos tie into the meaning of change in organisations and delve into the need to create leaders who not only can make sense of a situation or complex problems but can also be effective agents of change.
Review Pye’s (2005) account of the retail manufacturer’s CEO two ‘phases’ of leading the organisation.
Reflect on Pye’s (2005) recasting of leadership as sense-making.
Identify as many of the stakeholders in the case as you can, and try to define and compare their perspectives and interests.
Consider the problems that arise from the case and how the notions of leadership as meaning-making, or sense-making, and resilience might be applied.
To complete this Collaboration:

By Saturday (Day 3) in Week 7, in an approximately 300-word response, address the following issues/questions:

How does the case present an example of sense-making in leadership? What were the benefits and unanticipated consequences of the CEO’s approach, for himself and other stakeholders?
Could the resilience questioning put forth in the Margolis and Stoltz (2010) article have changed the outcome of the situation, and if so, how?
Submit your initial response to the Turnitin link provided and post to the Collaboration Forum.

Next week, you will continue this activity by responding to colleagues with different perspectives on the case, discussing the ways in which you agree and disagree with their comments, and why; sharing your ideas about how the concepts of sense-making and resilience might impact your own practice; and extending the discussion to examples from your own work life. You will wrap up the second week of this activity by preparing a final summary of what you learned and how your thinking may have changed as a result of your discussion and collaboration.

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