Solving Wicked Complex Problems

June 20, 2014

By: Allison Sheehan

Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I remember learning this in grade school, and doing experiment after experiment to prove that the law was true. I quickly learned this law also held true beyond the world of science. It social settings, it was simple—every action could create consequences or benefits, and it was your task to understand how your actions were going to affect others. When it was a person—or people—on the other end of the equation, rather than an object, it was a lot easier to understand. It seems to me that this also happens in the business world. When one is the CEO of a company, it may be a little easier to hide behind the structure of the building or behind the name of the company to fight for profit maximization, and it’s easier to forget the reactions that take place outside of that business. However, positive business leaders like Fred Keller are taking the initiative to reinstate the idea of looking at the whole picture of business, and are showing how businesses can use their power to create a better, sustainable society. They’re proving that positive work places can be prosperous work places, too.

Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering and the new executive-in-residence at the Center for Positive Organizations, was the speaker at the most recent Positive Links Speaker Series session. His success as CEO has proven that implementing positive organizational practices into the workplace can cultivate a prosperous company that also has tremendous impact on society.

His company uses the idea of the “Triple Bottom Line”—social capital, environmental capital, and financial capital. This means that with every decision a company makes, they take into consideration how it may affect the planet, people, and profit. Every action affects another action. Cascade views each category as a “three gear” relationship that cannot exist independently. “To drive one forward is to drive all three forward; the result is a sustainable system where innovation begets innovation.”

The sole purpose of many companies is to maximize profit, and the mark of a good business leader is often measured based on whether or not she fulfilled her task. However, Fred Keller pointed out that decision-making isn’t as simple as deciding if the endeavor will create profit or not. This is because with every decision should come the question of whether or not the outcome is good for the company and community. It is important to “think outside of yourself as an organization,” and to value every employee and member of society as integral parts of a decision. When we apply POS to work, people have more capacity to do more work, to think about others, and take on “wicked complex problems.” These “wicked complex problems” are problems an individual is challenged to figure out. She’s given little to no information, yet is expected to find a solution to mend or help the problem. This complexity can only be broken down when one’s mind has the capacity to do so.

Companies like Cascade Engineering have also created positive symbiotic relationships within their community, so as the organization gets better, the community is positively impacted. When this symbiotic relationship works, the “vibrant positive business leads to positive community impact.” Cascade has many programs and practices that work to empower their employees—for example, their “Welfare to Career” program. This program was not successful the first two times Cascade tried to launch it, but third time proved a charm, and it is now a flourishing program. Cascade learned that the only way for the welfare recipients to succeed in the working world was to give them a proper working environment that values the individual and is sensitive to their needs. Keller explained that when one has the desire to start with good, then transitions the workplace into one of supportive and understanding culture, everyone feels better off. And little shock to Cascade, when their employees felt empowered and connected to the community, productivity increased. They’ve turned their “corporate social responsibility” into “corporate social opportunity,” and the outcomes have been amazing. I was very inspired by Keller’s words and work, and his belief in “changing from profit maximizing to impact maximizing,” and truly focusing on the good we do in the world as a measure of success, and not on the money we make. When all of these ideals and practices combine together to form a positive symbiotic relationship, both sides of the equation can positively benefit. He has proved that with every action, there can be an equal and positive reaction.

To view Fred Keller’s Positive Links Speaker Series session, click here.

Allison just finished her freshman year in the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts. She heard about the Center from a Peer Advisor and was drawn to it because of its new and unique way of looking at organizations. Now she is part of the Social Media and Blogging Team as a Summer Fellow. She is excited to be a part of the fellows program and the environment and to learn about all of the aspects of the Center’s work, while discovering how to put positive meaning and leadership into the workplace.