By Anders Drejer & Christer Windeloew-Lidzélius

Ever heard the epitaph “Cowboy Number One”? There is a Western movie, “Public Cowboy No 1”, from 1937 as well as the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song “Two Tribes”; then there is the reference to the late American President Ronald Reagan.

What does it mean to be a top manager? A classical American approach views the top manager as he who knows best and, therefore, should manage employees for the best possible result. A sort of “Cowboy Number One”, as President Reagan was nicknamed in his time. Not everyone agrees with this fire-ready-aim notion of a top manager, though, so let us ponder the question of what it is to be a top manager.

What kind of problems does a top manager face?

Think about the kind of problems you face as a manager and how you go about solving them. Are most of the problems trivial – cause-and-effect easily established, solution almost presenting itself and able to be implemented, without organisational hassle, as best practice? Probably not. Perhaps a small percentage of your problems take up this simple form, where the managerial task is that of analysis. Other problems may take on the form of dilemmas, that is, the matter of choosing between two or several alternatives and where cause-and-effect relationships are blurred by lack of information and/or organisational advocates for each alternative. In these situations you have to do a lot more work – analyse and try out several models and sets of criteria for the eventual choice of the best alternative. These problem are a bit harder than the simple problems, but the key point is that everyone agrees that there is one best choice for a solution to the problem.

But there are also messy problem situations. These usually come as a complete surprise to everyone; their content and importance are unknown; the problem’s definition in itself is unclear; and, hence, cause-and-effect relationships in analysing the problem are impossible to figure out. We call these “Wicked Problems”.

The top manager and Wicked Problems

On March 11, 2020, the event, restaurant and festival industries were shut down by law in Denmark and subsequently in many other countries around the globe due to COVID-19 risks. The company Danish Event Rental lost 95% of its sales – in one day! Top management thus had to figure out what the problem was and what to do about. For instance, for how long would their customers suffer from restrictions due to COVID-19? Would it last for months? It quickly became apparent that it would be more than months. But, as we write this, top management is still debating whether the current situation will affect 2022 as well as 2021 (having wisely given up on 2020). Further questions include: When will there be a cure? How do we survive the impasse? How long will it last? And, with drastic downsizing being unavoidable, which core competencies do we seek to maintain for the many cold months to follow?

Luckily, thanks to a keen sense of the history of management theory, we already know a lot about the predicament that top managers face on a daily basis. Perhaps some “Cowboys” in the management field forgot – a later American President, George W. Bush, famously said, “I am the Decider” (which isn’t even a word in English) – but in 1967 the modern notion of “Wicked Problems” was introduced by C. West Churchman. A Wicked Problem is characterised by the fact that defining the problem is also part of its solution, that creativity and human imagination are essential to dealing with it, that synthesis is much more important than analysis and that the top manager has to experiment in order to allow a viable solution (as there is no one best solution to a wicked problem) to reveal itself. One can say that the problem is not (fully) understood until one has come up with a solution.

The promise of Complexity Theory

Our work has reconnected us to managerial crafts and arts less in fashion these days. One of those is that of Complexity Theory, which you may know as Systems Theory or as a theory connected to Systems Thinking. It is an area that recognises the inherent and natural complexity of nature and the world.

Now, as we recognise the complexity in our work, how do we deal with it? As Cowboy Number One or as something different?

Kaospilot Publishing launches a journal aimed at disseminating research, ideas and opinions about innovation and related fields. This piece is out is by Anders Drejer and Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius. It speaks to the fundamental need of renewal and development.

Also available through Spiro School of Business -The Innovation Series

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