I’ve been prevaricating about writing December’s monthnotes for a few days now. I’d put this down to not being sure what to write about and having been off work for a a fortnight for an extended Christmas break.

Bishopsbourne morning run

This made it a month of two clear halves for me. The first half of December was a particularly pressured period at work, trying to get loads of things finished by Christmas while also teeing up some new organisational governance to start in January.

And then I just stopped work for a break for the last two weeks. It’s been an enjoyable period away from the laptop, being able to see family and spend time doing things that I don’t manage to find the time to do normally.

I’ve also been doing a fair amount of DIY work around the house, accompanied by a lot of interesting podcasts that I’ve been meaning to listen to for ages.

I’m pretty disciplined about not dipping into work when I am properly having a break and this has helped me get some mental separation from the intensity and complexity that I seem to get quite immersed in during typical working weeks.

That separation has led me to a few realisations about the work I’m doing and my relationship with it. That’s important as at times I can feel like my own personal identity becomes indistinguishable from my work, which for me isn’t the most healthy long term way to be.

Having had that time away, I’ve realised that the complexity of the work I’m doing, combined with the unpredictability of the world outside work, has probably been the thing that has taken most mental energy from me in the past few months.

I love a complex and multi-faceted work puzzle to get into and solve. In fact I thrive on juggling several of these at once and working with others to help move things forward.

But I recognise I can be my own worst enemy sometimes and end up spending too much time thinking about these things, even at weekends when I’m not working. And that’s not then giving me proper downtime to enjoy other aspects of life that are important to me.

Having come to this realisation I did what I always do and went researching round the topic. I found a great article by Joseph Bentley called “Leadership is a wicked problem” which resonated strongly with my thinking.

While some of his assertions around the role of leadership don’t fully align with my thinking on leadership in progressive organisations, his key message is that there are two types of problems – and seeing success as solving both types is setting yourself up for failure.

“The primary and most important purpose of leaders…is to identify the important problems that they are facing and make sure they are solved. Everything else they do is connected in one way or another with their struggles with problems.”

Joseph Bentley (Leadership is a wicked problem)

He then sets out that there are tame problems – that can be solved – and wicked problems that cannot be solved, only worked upon:

Most organisational problems cannot be solved, they can only be worked on. Giving up the expectations of “solving” is crucial.

For wicked problems, there are no “solutions” to be discovered. “Solutions” must be created by committed people working together.

All solutions to wicked problems are temporary arrangements that, while they may make things better for a while, but must be visited again and again in order to make new arrangements. For wicked problems, no “solutions” are permanent.

For wicked problems, there is no single “root cause” that can be discovered and fixed. There is an infinite number of causes that affect any problem. The task of those who are working on the problem is to decide which of these are the most important.

All wicked problems are unique. No one has seen them before. Figuring out what is different about each one is required before moving to action.

Joseph Bentley (Leadership is a wicked problem)

For me, it was that first point that struck home. I have been equating solving with personal success, which given the nature of wicked problems isn’t a sensible approach.

A mindset that’s more focussed on coming up with “good enough” solutions that employ a learning approach and strong personal analysis and decision-making processes feels like a more personally sustainable way of self-evaluating my impact at work.

It reminds me of the need to focus on the “controllables” rather than outcomes, as in a complex system there will always be other factors at play that can affect outcomes, but we can always hold ourselves to account for our actions in relation to the things that we have personal control of.

So with that in mind I’m back at work next week with a renewed energy and a few changes that I’m going to trial to help make my working life more sustainable in 2022. It’ll be very interesting to re-read this post as I write monthnotes in December 2022 and look back on how I got on!

Happy new year!

ps at this time of year a lot of people set new intentions or resolutions for the new year. I’ve found this podcast episode and book really good at helping understand how to make changes that stick – based on sound academic research, not Insta-guru wishful thinking.