Workshop 1


The first workshop covered:

  • What is a Wicked Problem?
  • Leadership with Wicked Problems
  • Is RDM a Wicked Problem?

Wicked Problems

The scale, interconnectedness and complexity of issues in HE pose new challenges for leadership in the widest sense. One way of thinking about this is to adopt Rittel and Webber’s (1973) seminal distinction between “tame” and “wicked” problems. Wicked problems are complex issues that are hard to address, let alone solve, because they are defined fundamentally differently by different stakeholders and there are many constraints on solving them.


The point of the distinction is that when we recognise a problem as wicked we operate differently; wicked problems require different forms of leadership. Zenke (2014) proposes that leaders in HE should take design approaches to cope with wickedness. Design thinking is a solution oriented way of thinking about problems that is gaining currency as an approach in business schools. Grint (2008) argues that wicked problems demand a bricolage of leadership approaches, rather than a purely “rational” planned approach. Horn’s visual “mess mapping” is one of a number of tools for leadership that have been proposed in different contexts to tackle these kinds of complex problem. Such tools have been comprehensively reviewed by Ney and Verweij (forthcoming).

Research Data Management

In the last three years a significant new agenda in HEIs has emerged around research data management (RDM). Because funders mandate good data management and increasingly favour open sharing of that data, so institutions are under new obligations to support RDM more effectively. The shifting character of the RDM agenda as well as its scale and reach mean it has many attributes of a wicked problem: it’s a far reaching issue, with connections to other problems and there are very significant resource constraints for finding a solution. Developing effective RDM services requires collaboration between academics and professional services staff in research administration, IT, libraries and records management. Some of these collaborations already exist. In many cases, however, new inter-professional networks or perhaps Third Space roles will have to be created. With REF submissions now complete (freeing resources for other agendas to surface) and with the 2015 EPSRC deadline to institutions for providing an RDM infrastructure looming, the next couple of years will be a critical period for this challenge to mid-level leadership in HEIs.

Materials to download


  • Grint, Keith (2010) Wicked problems and clumsy solutions: the role of leadership. In: Brookes, S. and Grint, K. (eds.) The new public leadership challenge. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 169-186.
  • Ney, S. and Verweij, M. (forthcoming). Messy institutions for wicked problems: how to generate clumsy solutions. Policy Studies Journal.
  • Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences4(2), 155-169.
  • Zenke, P. F. (2014). Higher Education Leaders as Designers. In: Hokanson, B. and Gibbons, A. (eds.) Design in Educational Technology. Springer International Publishing, pp. 249-259.