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Five things we learned in 2020 about mega-crises, wicked problems, and the VUCA world

15 December 2020

News and media


Online learning and virtual classroom

Most people had not experienced a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic in their lifetime. But academics have been writing about mega-crises, wicked problems, and VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) for years. This year theory was forced into practice.

The pandemic is not just a health crisis, but a social and economic one as well. Public leaders have had to keep the public safe from COVID-19, but many of the strategies inevitably put people out of work and isolated them from support networks for extended periods of time. To avoid long-lasting damage, leaders and public servants have to be incredibly skilled to manage the ever-changing situation, locally and globally.

In response to the pandemic ANZSOG moved a range of education, research and advice and thought leadership deliveries online, and developed new initiatives to prioritise the need to provide public sector leaders with the best knowledge and research to deal with COVID-19. New initiatives, included:

The Leading in a Crisis series
The Reimagining Government series
Our research translation series, The Bridge.

The following articles were some of the most popular articles on the ANZSOG website in 2020. All of them discuss the COVID-19 crisis – some in relation to past mega-crises and wicked problems – to explain how the public service should manage in extreme circumstances. Each article features ANZSOG’s unique network of academics and practitioners, who were able to help us communicate the latest thinking about mega-crises, wicked problems and VUCA to the public sector.

COVID-19 crisis future fault lines: managing the conflicts we had to have

By Professor Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University)

The early 21st century has often been described as the era of ‘VUCA’. COVID-19 has blown that to massive proportions. At Professor Paul ‘t Hart notes, COVID-19 is not just a pandemic, it’s a supply-chain, macro-economic, social and geopolitical crisis.

That means tough questions, not only about how we deal with the conditions as they unfold, but also in how we address the ‘new reality’. This is why we need politics: to grapple with complex, interlinked issues, but politics cannot work at the regular pace – decisions have to be made quickly – and yet they still have to be sensible.

This article lays out an inventory of ‘hot issues’ in the COVID-19 crisis, tensions that must be worked through in order to survive the pandemic.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

Collaboration for impact: eight lessons from the field

By Dr John Butcher (Curtin University) and Professor David Gilchrist (Australian National University)

No single organisation or sector can manage a wicked problem, but policy responses have tended to occur in ‘silos’. Policymakers and practitioners are increasingly stressing that collaboration is the answer. That said, it’s hard to find examples of genuine, effective and sustained collaboration. Communication, cooperation and coordination might look like collaboration, but can fall short of the mark.

In 2016, Dr John Butcher and Professor David Gilchrist asked a fundamental question: how do you make collaboration work? In this article they describe their work and include key lessons and questions for collaborators. Since Australia has been hit by successive crises – the GFC, institutional and systemic failures, drought, bushfires and COVID-19 – collaboration is a crucial practice and mindset to rebuild.

Read more here

Leading with humility: has COVID-19 opened the door for honest and transparent leadership?

‘Leading with humility’ might sound like a contradiction, but the term is being used to describe a type of leadership more suited to the VUCA world. COVID-19 has changed the perception of public leaders in the media, and therefore prompted a change in style.

There’s good news for public leaders, with the public more willing than usual to accept mistakes. Rather than perfection, the public is asking for ‘accountability’, and that requires leaders to front up to challenges, to own mistakes, fix them, and learn from them. Leaders also need to step back from big speeches and start to listen, and make sure they’re listening to the right people.

This article is a summary of a Reimagining Government panel discussion. It gives an overview of what humble leadership looks like, and tips for how individuals can become more authentic leaders, and how organisational cultures can help them.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Reimagining Government series.

Read more here

Leading in a crisis: committing to clear crisis communications

By Arjen Boin (Leiden University), Allan McConnell (Sydney University), Eric Stern (State University of New York), and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University)

In every crisis, it is essential that government and public sector leaders provide a compelling story. COVID-19 has had its own examples of good and poor communication. When the public understands the crisis and trusts its leaders, they are hopeful, confident and able to act. When leaders fail to create a good narrative, they open the field to alternative readings from the many contenders looking to fill the void.

The authors analysed decades of crises to find key lessons to help ‘make meaning’ during the mega-crisis of COVID-19. They listed the common pitfalls to avoid, and give tips to create clear messages, credibility and care.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

Leading in a crisis: organisational resilience in mega-crises

By Arjen Boin (Leiden University), Fredrik Bynander (Swedish Defense University), Eric Stern (State University of New York), and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University)

COVID-19 remains a mega-crisis, similar in impact to the Japanese tsunami in 2011 or the USA’s Hurricane Katrina in 2006, but on a global scale. That brings extraordinary demands. Crises can be sudden impact and short in duration (sprints), or long in duration with multiple peaks (marathons). COVID-19 requires organisations to perform sprints while running a marathon.

So how can governments and organisations stay resilient? The authors identify and outline three types of resilience that should be cultivated: personal, institutional, and post-crisis. They include recommendations for leaders, including leading by example, having trust in the people they lead, and avoiding blame and credit-claiming. If done well, governments and the public can last the mega-crisis, and learn how to tackle future mega-crisis.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

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Read more #BestofANZSOG2020 articles:

Five things we learned about crisis leadership during COVID-19
Five public administration lessons from 2020
Three things we learned about working from home in 2020
Six things COVID-19 taught us about regulation and why people comply
Four lessons from 2020 policy makers need to learn
Five thought-provoking articles from 2020 for public sector leaders