In the area of leadership and problem solving we have concluded some of the research we had been conducting around leaders' perceptions of how successful they are when making decisions in ambiguous spaces, where the leader considers that either they were uncertain what the problem was or where the solution path was ambiguous and considered to be a risk.
During the period of 2001 – 2007 and whilst I was working at Cranfield University I had the opportunity to talk with senior managers and leaders (161) from a number (42) of different organisations. I was interested in the problems that they had solved, especially the difficult and ambiguous problems they had encountered. I asked them to tell me about any problem or problems they had encountered over the last 5 years where they had no idea either, what the problem was and/or how to solve it. Them I asked for an estimation of success of the solution and to what they attributed the outcome to.
I then took the problems as they described (they agreed a written version of the problem) them and took them to their manager (where there was one) or leader, their peers, team members and their direct reports. The first thing I wanted to know was did these other people recognise the problems as reported? The next was did they recognise the solutions as reported? Similarly I then asked them for their estimation of success of the solution and to what they attributed the eventual outcome to.
The results are interesting. Of the 161 leaders interviewed 155 (or 96.2%) reported that their problem solving had been totally successful in that the solution(s) that they had applied had worked. Only 6 leaders considered that their solutions to ambiguous problems had not worked either at all or partially (This number is distinct from and does not include the problems that the leaders reported as being too hard or too difficult to solve that they had never even got to formulate or apply any form of solution). Of those 2 reported that the solution had failed, not because of any deficiency in the solution but due rather to other issues like politics or that they had moved on and the next incumbent had derailed the project.
The interviews furnished close to 350 different problems from the leaders. Of which 173 were universally agreed by the others to be ambiguous problems that they recognised. The rest fell into two broad camps. Either the others didn’t recognise the problem at all and couldn’t comment on it, or they recognised the problem but considered that it was not ambiguous and that the company had a system for solving that the leaders appeared not to know about.
With the remaining 173 problems (from 161 leaders) the others considered that 42(24.2%) of the problems had been successfully resolved. The remainder were considered to be either total failures, that the solution got ditched as unworkable or that the solution(s) resulted in outcomes that were as bad as or even worse than the original problem. In short it works out that 75.8% of leadership solutions to ambiguous problems fails.
When I took these results back to the leaders (with a revolver) most of them disputed the findings, about a quarter reluctantly agreed that things hadn’t actually gone as they had expected. Interestingly about 20 percent of these blamed someone else for the failure.
A bit of a problem really. At an address I gave to a Police Leadership Conference in 2007 titled (somewhat tongue in cheek), ‘Leadership problem solving causes more problems than it solves’ I made the quip that it might be an idea to keep leaders away from ambiguity as they just mess it up. On the front row of the lecture theatre the top brass started to look a little uncomfortable when a voice from the lowly ranks at the back shouted out ‘as they cock up certainty as well it doesn’t really leave them with very much to do, does it?”