KM World 2012 Notes: Finding New Solutions to Wicked Problems

I am pleased to be at the 2012 KM World. Here are my notes for 2011 and 2010.

I attended the interactive session, Finding New Solutions to Wicked Problems led by Dave Snowden, Founder & CSO – Cognitive Edge.

Here is the session description. It is part of the interactive track.

Using facilitation techniques that are based on complexity science, this session helps you find ways to work out if a problem is complicated — or wicked — because if it is, there is no right answer, and we need to experiment with safe-to-fail solutions. Get a template with heuristics for creating wicked problem interventions and use “ritual dissent” to temper/test the proposals so that they will stand up. Participants will try these techniques and take home a set of simple techniques to use in their organizations to collectively find new solutions to complex problems.

Dave said he wanted us to think about a difficult slippery problem.  He asked us to think about a strategic problem where KM might play a role. Dave wants to promote KM as a strategic function and not simply as a support cost center. You need to solve the intractable problems to become strategic. These are problems where conventional solutions do not work. The complex spaces where there are no right/wrong answers are the most interesting things to consider.

Dave said to try multiple short experiments where some will fail to address intractable problems. It is best if the approaches contradict each other to test the wide range of possibilities. Then you can test things out. The approaches should be coherent. They also need to be safe to fail so you can recover fast if something goes wrong.

Most complex problems are solved by someone trying to solve a different problem that the one being faced. I have experienced this myself several times. Include some naïve solutions. These are not stupid ones but ones from people not familiar with the situation. If you do not have some failures you have not spread the approaches wide enough.

Try to be messy for a bit to allow for solutions to emerge. He offered some forms to support the experimentation. You need a description of the experiment with a rationale. Create implications of success and failure. You need an amplification strategy and a recovery strategy. You need to include actions and responsibility for actions.

Then each table carried out the exercise. We choose the problem: how to get an organization to move from a command and control culture to a more democratic networked culture.  We took an insight from a traffic situation where cross roads with accidents occurred. People removed the traffic lights and people had to self-police and the accidents went down. So we said that two groups within the organization and removed the hierarchy and compare it to two groups with the old hierarchy. Give them all the same task and see what happens.

In the process the spokesperson goes to another table and listens to an attack by the other group with the spokesperson’s back turned. Then the spokesperson goes back to the original group to fine tune based on the feedback. The group then fine tunes the experiment and goes to another table for another round. Dave said that in doing this process you usually go through five rounds of refinement. It leads to more refined experiments and expanded awareness of the issues. Build on the assumption that failure is evitable and that fast recovery is key. I like this process and hope to use it myself.

I think that Dave made a very important point when he said at the beginning that he wants to promote KM as a strategic function and not simply as a support cost center. You need to solve the intractable problems to become strategic. There is a huge opportunity for KM professionals to led organizations into the new connected and social business world.

As McKinsey points out there are over a trillion in potential annual benefits associated with this move. They found, “that social technologies, when used within and across enterprises, have the potential to raise the productivity of the high-skill knowledge workers that are critical to performance and growth in the 21st century by 20 to 25 percent.”

However, they also noted that in this early stage of mass adoption, McKinsey notes that, “businesses have only just begun to understand how to create value with these new tools.” Using techniques like the one that Dave demonstrated can help KM Professionals solve the strategic issues that face organizations and help organizations achieve greater value for the connected enterprise.

Blog post by Bill Ives of the Merced Group and AppFusions, and who also blogs at Portals and KM.

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