E2A 069: Taming Wicked Problems with Professor Clive Smallman 

 January 16, 2024

By  Scott A. MacMillan

In this episode of Entrepreneur to Author podcast, your host Scott MacMillan interviews Professor Clive Smallman, founder of Design for Growth, and author of Sorted: Taming Wicked Problems with Smart Leadership Thinking.

The conversation delves into wicked problems, which can range from arresting climate change to spurring business growth to the increasing challenge of workplace disengagement. In addition, Clive shares insights into his writing process, highlighting the book's role as a versatile business tool.


DR CLIVE SMALLMAN has more than 30 years’ experience in research, educating and mentoring others in risk and crisis management. He has earned advanced degrees in AI and operational risk management and brings a formidable set of skills, experiences and knowledge to his work in equipping executive leaders to tame their wicked problems.




Website: clivesmallman.com

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/clivesmallman/

Facebook: facebook.com/clive.smallman

Instagram: instagram.com/smallmac1961/

YouTube: youtube.com/channel/UCvryJKTucJ7mj3_v2693Gpg





Scott on LinkedIn (@scottmacmillan): linkedin.com/in/scottmacmillan/

Scott on Instagram (@scottamacmillan): instagram.com/scottamacmillan/

Scott on Twitter (@scottamacmillan): twitter.com/scottamacmillan/

Scott on Medium (@scottamacmillan): scottamacmillan.medium.com

Listen now on Spreaker or Spotify.

Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third-party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott MacMillan

You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast.


Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now, here's your host, Scott MacMillan.


Today I'm speaking with Professor Clive Smallman, founder and head coach at Design for Growth. Clive has more than 30 years experience in research and in educating and mentoring others in risk and crisis management. He earned advanced degrees in AI and operational risk management and now brings his formidable set of skills to his work helping executive leaders to tame their wicked problems. Clive is also the author of Sorted: Taming Wicked Problems with Smart Leadership Thinking.

Clive, it's great to have you here. Thanks for being on the show.

Clive Smallman

Hello, thanks Scott, thanks for inviting me.


Of course, of course. To start, I'd love to ask you a very simple question, hopefully simple for you, but not for the rest of us. What is a wicked problem and how did you become so interested in them?


Wicked problems, the classical wicked problem is the huge global thing, the climate crisis, war, terrorism, things like this sort of really big, complex, difficult, really difficult problems to get your head around. And that's the classic formulation that came out in the 1970s, originally going back to an AI pioneer called Herbert Simon. He called them ill-structured problems, which really doesn't do them justice.

I pull them in personally into, uh, into the world of business and into the personal world. So, uh, they are things like, um, when you have problems with, with production problems, if you are, if you have a product recall. If you have…the classic one is, um, a long time ago now, some, uh, some Domino's workers decided it would be a really good idea to have a bat in a commercial sink in a Domino's restaurant and put the video up on YouTube or its predecessor. You can't see that one coming, how do you cope with that? Domino's do very well in the end. There's all sorts of things like that.

But more prosaically, the management of change is a complex problem in any large organization. And they sort of organize, it's anything that's complex, difficult, complicated, with lots of moving parts. And they are, and you never really solve them. You kind of tame them or they run out of fuel. But they actually just self-extinguish themselves.

The biggest wicked problem we've got at the moment is the lack of engagement in the workplace worldwide. 88% of employees worldwide are disengaged at work. Well, if that's not a wicked problem, I don't know what is.

And then at the next level, you have the classic ones that small to medium, in fact, all businesses face, which is inconsistent cashflow, a lack of growth, and difficult to manage costs. And then, you know, executives get burned out because they're trying to manage those two things and they're, they're where I'm focusing just at the moment.

I had to get interested in them. It goes back a long way, actually.

My honor's dissertation, which was written on a typewriter, which tells you how old I am, and the pictures were drawn with a rotary pen on a board with a stencil. So that really tells you how old I am. Was on the changing climate of Glacier in Iceland, not far from where the one that...here's one that's blowing up at the moment, a volcano in Iceland, not far from there actually.

Um, and so I've always been interested in natural science and it sort of progressed from there. And when I went to do my PhD, I've been working in, uh, insurance. And so the boss, my supervisor, David Weir said, what would you like to look at? I said about risk management. And it kind of went from there and we delivered the first ever risk and crisis management course in a British business school in the early 1990s and I've been really interested in teaching ever since and I keep coming back to it and I keep looking at interesting things you get problems in politics you get problems in organizations so that's where it comes from I'm not morbidly obsessed with things going wrong but it does interest me nevertheless.


Yeah, that's really, really helpful context. And it really seems that wicked problems can crop up in any industry, in any area. And that notion of not really being able to solve it, but really having to settle for taming it, I think is a really interesting way to look at these types of problems. And you've recently published your new book, Sorted, which deals specifically with this question of how can we tame wicked problems. Could you share a little bit about the book? Who is it written for and what are your goals for your reader?


It's written primarily for people who are in the C-suite in corporates, for owners, founders and leaders who are in, I guess, really heavily regulated or difficult to manage industries and those are things like education, believe it or not, in Australia at least, is very heavily regulated, but also things like mining, any extractive industry, any financial services, particularly in Australia, has been through the mill…I forget how many public inquiries we've had, it must be 20 over the years now. And I've got a history going back of involvement in public inquiries in various sorts, which are actually in the book.

And so that's the group of, that's who it's written for…and for people to try and really understand how they can better help people, because it seems to me that we're getting more, we seem to be going through a surge at the moment where we're getting more of these types of issues cropping up in businesses, partially caused by an interesting phenomena in politics which seems to be going on with a little bit of a lurch towards extremism at both ends of the spectrum. That's not a political comment, it's just an observation.

And so it just seems that there's a growth in that. And I felt it was time to give a basis for some, for people to perhaps take a different look at how we assess problems, take a different look at how we assess the environment that organizations are in. And it kind of stitches together different parts of thinking. So it's a bit of strategy. It's a little bit of operations management. It's a little bit of design thinking. So it's what rather pretentiously people call a bricolage subject. And that means it's other people who call it a rag bag of different ideas and different thinking together. So it's a synthesized idea.

So actually what's sat next to me, and I'm looking, there's 20 copies here with the names of the top 20 CEOs in Australia, top 20 companies CEOs in Australia. And that'll be mailed out either later today or tomorrow to those people. And that's everybody from, I don't know, Woodside to Rio Tinto to Telstra to Xero, the accounting company. There's all sorts in there. And that's, they're the big end of town, but then I'll be working with the smaller end of town as well, where possible.


That's brilliant. I love that you're sharing it with that group. That's a perfect way to use a book like this and a perfect way to share your thinking with them.

Clive, how did you find the writing process?


I've never struggled with writing. So this is actually my seventh book, but it's the first one where I've had the pleasure of having it professionally edited by, actually by you and your colleagues as you're aware. And it was good. It was kind of, it was like a bit of a throwback, this sounds odd, when I did my PhD, in that for the first time I'd got someone looking over my shoulder and saying…

And again, as you're aware, what actually happened was I got to the point about halfway through, and my long suffering as to your colleague, sort of was giving me lots of thought, this book is absolute garbage. So I went back and rethought it. And that's what it did for me. And eternally grateful. And I'm not saying that because I'm talking to you. I'm eternally grateful that somebody sort of questioned the structure that I put together.

And so I sat and thought about it for about a week. And then because of what you guys did, I restructured it and made it much tighter structure. And then you took it in tightened it even more. So it was a really good, really good peer review process. I'd encourage anybody who's done self-publication, which I have on several occasions, it is worth the investment, I think, to have someone over your shoulder saying, really that works, that doesn't, you need to tighten up here, that example, you know, what even, I mean, all authors do this and it's been in the news recently, with the president of Harvard, inadvertent plagiarism and people do it, you don't realize you're doing it and it's not malicious, it's just you've done it subconsciously because you've read something, usually because you've read something really good and it takes an editor to go, well actually, I've read that somewhere before, you know.

Yes, you have, haven't you? So you find a way to rephrase and say it really teased it out. I'm really pleased with the end product. It really flows and reads. The structure is much more together. So it was a really good process.


Wonderful. I'm really happy that you shared that, because you're right. Most of us spend years and years and years at school with this operating model of submitting our work, getting feedback, and that collaborative approach. And then we quote unquote grow up. And when it comes to writing, at least, we're sort of our own boss, right? And we don't benefit from that same collaboration that we did in school. So.

I'm thrilled that you found that helpful and I agree. I mean, the proof is in the pudding in terms of the work itself and the level of thinking that you've put into it and how you've articulated very, very complex concepts but in an accessible way and I think it really is an outstanding work.

What are your business goals for the book, Clive? And you talked a little bit about how you're using it to support your business in terms of sending it out as a piece of thought leadership to senior leaders. Can you share a little bit more about that and perhaps other ways that you're making use of the book? 


So there's a couple of ways that I use it. The old fashioned expression is a lead magnet. It's an overly used one. The genuine lead magnet for this case is the first two chapters, which Grammar Factory has helped me to package up and looks really professional, which is really pleasing. And that's linked to social media posts that go out from me once a week.

It's on my shortly to be relaunched website. So it's a way of picking people up. So I talk about talk about wicked problems in different guises. I'm particularly focused on designing businesses for growth, which is a wicked problem at the moment in the current climate and always has been so that that'll go at the bottom of that post those two chapters and then I invite people to purchase the wider book.

I've then got the copies that I've had printed, which will be used as gifts to, I hasten to add, I don't know, I've said I've got 20 going to senior CEOs. I don't expect them all to read the book. I don't expect them all to get the book. I think their EAs will intercept. But if one or two get the book at the end and read it and it's interested and they refer it, then it's worth the investment that it takes put it in front of them.

I'll also use the book itself at networking events that I go to. Um, I've got a networking event at the end of, and I'll…I've got to work out. There's no point in doing a book launch in Australia in December and January. It's a complete waste of time. There's nobody, nobody here. So probably, um, late February, early March, probably have a book launch, uh, in Sydney. One of my clients who I work with, uh, has offered to launch that. So get a gathering of people together…take it from there.

But it's really a method of getting people into people's thought process, trying to get people's attention. And as my mentor Matt said, he said it's got to look a million dollars. He said to an extent I don't care what the content is like. He said the content can be gibberish. He didn't mean that, but you get my point. But it's got to look a million dollars and indeed it does look, the design was settled very early with it, the external design…the interior design, I'm delighted with as well.

And it's because, I mean, behind me there's probably, I don't know, there's probably approaching 800 books on shelves in various parts of the house. And that's a fraction of what's published each year, as you as a publisher will know how many books published each year. And the cut through, you've got to get the cut through with a book to get it in front of people as the lead, maybe. So that's what it's used for, is to get people's attention.

I'm not a professional author, that's not my intention. I'd love to be, but I don't yet have the level of investment that would let me do that. And you know, to be a professional author is a huge investment, initially before your books take off and you start to make money from them.


That's right. That's right.


Anybody will tell you, as an academic, you don't make money off books.


That's right, yeah.


It’s very difficult to make money. It's everything that goes around it that makes the money.


Exactly. Huge investment, especially of time.


Yes. Yeah.


It takes time to build your author platform and build an audience that you can then write books into. Once you've got that audience, well, then it's almost like a gold mine, that you can write books into that audience and it'll sell immediately.

For others who have considered writing a book, you said that you've written seven others. Most people and most of the people listening to this podcast would like to write a book but haven't done it yet. What advice do you have for them?


Start. You've got to write. You've got to write. You have to set a target. Well, first of all, and this is, you've got to get a model that works and you've got to have a model of your whatever it is you want to do, be it a plot for a fiction book or be it a thought leadership model for a non-fiction book or a structure. And that's a plot as well. So you've got to design something.

And then before you start to really write in earnest, try that out with people, people like yourself, professional publishers and editors, people who can be a critical friend.

A colleague of mine has given me his book to go through, for example, so I give him feedback, but he's written a lot of the book. And my inclination is it needs much more structure…because I always say you should get drawn through a book by its structure. So you say you should fiction or non-fiction. You've got to say what's he going to say or what's she going to say next?

But you've got to get that structure right. Once you've got that structure right then you've got to write. There's the old expression I can't remember who it was who said it was about voting and it said vote early and often. Well it's the same with writing.

Find the part of the day that works for you. And then every day write something. The Australian author, Peter Fitzsimmons…FitzSimons, I always get his name wrong, writes in the wee small hours of the morning, he's notorious for this. But that's the time of the day that works for him. It's when the house goes, and I do that as well sometimes, it's when the house goes quiet, even though there's only two of us rattling around in this house. So it's a combination.

Get the structure right. The title absolutely has got to be right. The title is, you and I debated the title of this book. We went backwards and forwards around the houses and eventually we got to one that I'm really pleased with. The title is important. And then once you've got that, then you've got your model, you've got your plot, and then you've got to write. And then you've got to keep writing. You've got to test it out on people. You've got to say, what do you think of this?

And then...give it to an editor and take your medicine by the way. But if you want to write a book, you've got to start. That's what it comes down to. And I'd written chapters and I'd written research monographs and I'd written, I don't know, over 200 scientific articles over the years. And I'd written blog posts, but I'd never, I didn't really write a book until I did my very first book, which I'm going to do a second edition of at some point, because he really needs it. And I need to kind of sit down and write it.

And your first book is an American philosopher, a Canadian actually, Douglas Hofstadter. And he's got this remarkable book called Girdle Escher Bach, which is a real sort of pseudo intellectual joy fest. It's about this really thick book…somebody said to him, how did you end up writing such a big book? He said it was 30 years. All came out in the book. And that's what happened. So yes, start, but start with structure. Start.


Beautiful. Clive, shifting to the work that you're doing now, what sorts of people and organizations do you find yourself working with, and in what capacity are you supporting them?


Primarily, I'm a coach and what I've gone towards is coaching people who've enjoyed some level of success. So founders or leaders of businesses of all sorts of sizes, I've done over the years. So they've enjoyed some success, but they're perhaps a little frustrated in that they can't seem to get any more growth out of their business. They imagine that their costs have not been...are not as well managed as they would like. And they're working lots and lots and lots and lots of hours to try and get things….

And this is a situation I've found myself in as well. And the idea is to really help them to reframe their business. And I use the SORTED method. We've talked about sorted. I mean, SORTED is an acronym. It means understand your Situation, get your Objectives together, check your Reality, build a Template for change, Execute that template for change and Develop what it is you're doing.

So that's just that sort of covers all sorts of things and ways you can do things. So it's a very broad method. But the idea is, is that you help people to reframe their business in context, come up with a plan for changing and executing.

But he important part of execution is that you sort your life out as well, because we've got a plague of burnout worldwide and you've got people who are very tired. And so it's how do you help people to balance fixing their business, not fixing, but improving their business with actually getting the life back. And I call it design your next decade for growth. And I work with a colleague and friend, Chris Freeman.

And we move, once we've got them through the design phase with the business, we have a look at people's lives using Chris's approach, which is called Design a Decade. So that's, that's where I'm at the moment. And that's people I've worked with people at multinationals. I've worked with people who run their own business, who are self-employed. I'm working with another thought leader at the moment, who runs their own consulting business and I was talking with a dentist about that, and we're still developing that idea.

It's less the business, it's more the person and the situation that they're in, and the wicked problem that they've got. And the wicked problem may be that they're a victim of their own success, in that they've got such a successful business, but it's so focused on them that they actually can't extract themselves out of it, so that they, you know, the only holiday they get in Australia is the two weeks around Christmas and New Year and that's it.

 And yes, guilty is charged. It's an issue that I've got as well. And that's part of the reason is to try and not have people struggle with some of the things that I've struggled with personally over the years, which I'm out of now. So that's what I'm looking for.


Perfect. How can people get in touch with you to learn more about this, particularly if what you just shared resonates with them?


They can go and have a look at my website clivesmallman.com or they can go and have a look at desinforgrowth.com.au, look me up on Linkedin look me up on Facebook look me up on Instagram…don't bother with twitter because Idon't let's not go down that particular rabbit hole.. but they're all the places that you'll find me. I write four or five times a week on all of those platforms. You'll find me popping up on social media. And you can always drop me an email, Clive@clivesmallman.com.


Perfect. And we'll put links, all the appropriate links, in the show notes so that it's easy for people to reference as well. Cleve, thank you so much for joining us today. I don't think there's any debate around whether we're facing more or fewer wicked problems these days than in previous times. And more than ever, we need guidance about how to tame them. So thank you for your insights around this, and also about your own authorship journey. I know it's been tremendously helpful for our audience.


Thanks Scott, I appreciate the opportunity to chat. Thank you.


As we wrap up this episode of Entrepreneur to Author, remember this, now is the time, time to write, time to publish, and time to grow. I'm Scott McMillan, until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

Scott A. MacMillan Signature

related posts:

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get in touch