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Rotman Magazine

Leaders: Don't be afraid to ask for help Add to ...

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in Rotman Magazine, published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

The key to solving complex problems lies in figuring out when–and how–to ask for help.

“These problems are too big for us to solve alone. We need to collaborate like we never have before.”

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The person responsible for these words might surprise you: Beth Comstock is the chief marketing officer at General Electric–a company that no one would accuse of having a laid back or laissez-faire culture. Yet Ms. Comstock, along with GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt and fellow senior executives, have embraced the fact that the challenges they face – in areas from health care to energy to transportation – are too ‘wicked’ to be solved by GE alone.

From climate change to spiralling health care costs, from global poverty to food and water shortages, wicked problems and their ramifications also impact organizations and their employees. As a result, the broad solutions we need might just come from market-driven companies seeking to out-innovate and out-perform their competition.

The key to solving these complex problems–as well as narrower, more industry-specific challenges–lies in figuring out when–and whom–to ask for help.

For Esther Dyson, the answer to the question of when to ask for external help is pretty simple: start now. A leading angel investor who focuses her attention on spaces such as health care and biotechnology, Ms. Dyson says the pace of innovation and change is woefully slow in a global business culture that too often rewards the status quo. Many executives–particularly those managing large companies with complicated daily demands–find it challenging to focus too far into the future for fear that the present might get away from them.

Additionally, the massive complexity of wicked problems can paralyze rather than inspire. For Ms. Dyson, the way to overcome this collective catatonia is to break down the tasks into smaller, more bite-size pieces. “We should be aware of the enormity of these problems,” she says, “but that’s how we’ll solve them; that’s how you change systems.”

Overcoming the understandable tendency to focus solely on answering the pressures of the next earnings call will not help to diminish the agony of necessary transformation later.

“Mostly, the future is unknowable,” says Ms. Comstock. “You can have the best-laid plans, but you have to have contingency plans, too.” The more clear-minded you are about what’s ahead and when problems are likely to become most pressing, the more likely you are to survive the only real certainty: the imminent onslaught of change.

Finding the right helping hands

In 1999, Chris Meyer co-authored Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy. A keen observer of network effects and the changing skills businesses need to thrive, Mr. Meyer remains unequivocal about the challenges posed by the wicked problems of our age. As he put it in a recent interview, “In effect, people should only be paid to solve wicked problems. Others can be solved by robots.” In practice, executives urgently need to focus on finding the right people to tackle the right tasks at the right time.

That’s no small matter. “For us, resources are not just about money, but also about finding the right people,” acknowledges GE’s Ms. Comstock. Getting staffing right early on is critical for future success. She adds: “You have to spend a lot of time upfront on figuring out who does what–and you have to take the time to set up governance.”

When Ms. Comstock was based at NBC Universal, working with a team from News Corporation to develop the streaming video service Hulu.com, she soon realized they needed to hire a leader from outside of the television industry. “It was important to hire someone with a fresh perspective,” she says of the ultimate decision to hire former Amazon senior vice president Jason Kilar as CEO of the new venture. Hulu might not have solved any deep societal problems, but it did succeed in tackling a huge problem facing companies that needed to figure out how to thrive in the new, digital world.

Practical ways to ask for help

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