All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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Creating High Performance Adaptive Teams Through KM: Part One

August 11th, 2008 · 4 Comments


In a recent discussion in actkm over the past few days, Steve Denning raised the question of how one might create “high performance teams.” In this and the next post, I’ll provide a slightly revised version of one of my replies during the discussion.

Unless high performance teams are performing routine business process work using knowledge that works, they can’t be “high performance” without having the ability to adapt to challenges. That entails having the ability to seek, recognize and formulate problems, solve them, and integrate the solutions either within the team or the larger enterprise. A team may develop that ability without recourse to knowledge management. But if management deliberately sets out to create teams with such a capacity, then, I think that for better or worse they are doing KM.

Steve raised the question of how high performance teams are created. I think that teams constituted to do routine work should be comprised of individuals selected for their ability to perform their appointed tasks within the team, and also for their ability to collaborate with others. On the other hand, if we’re talking about putting together teams that will develop adaptive capacity (i.e., the capacity for innovation), then I think we have to worry about both constituting the team in such a way, and managing it in such a way, that a culture of openness is fostered.

Constitution of a team that will excel in problem solving may require a sustained effort to recruit people who have a track record of previous successful problem solving. One principle to follow is Ashby’s. That is, recruit people who collectively are likely to provide the team with the greatest amount of variety in new ideas. A second principle comes from Popper. Recruit people who are likely to provide the severest critical evaluation of new ideas. A third principle also comes from Popper. Recruit people who are good at critical exchanges in the sense that they can both criticize the ideas of others and receive criticism of their ideas without getting personal, and with the ability to recognize when an idea they love hasn’t performed very well.

More generally, people with high risk intelligence may be recruited for the team. I’ll explain what I mean by that in the following paragraphs quoted from an adaptive metrics center report on Relative Risk Intelligence Metrics:

The application context for organizations

Consider the situation of the manager who is tasked with recruiting a team to meet a particular organizational challenge. The very notion of an organizational challenge implies that a problem area exists and that learning followed by decisions will be non-routine and must be creative. Task forces and teams are about problem solving, and the solutions to be developed risk error and its consequences. It is therefore in the manager’s best interests to staff his/her task force or team with knowledge workers who have a high level of relative risk intelligence in the problem area involved.

“The manager will often be faced with multiple possibilities in recruiting members of the team. Unlike the context of competing organizations entering a new area and the selection of one of them as the highest in risk intelligence, in a large organization, there may be 30 – 50 or more possibilities from which to choose 4 – 6 or more team members. While many aspects of a test for relative risk intelligence may be the same or similar to the test for relative risk intelligence of competing organizations, there will also be critical differences in this area of risk intelligence testing.

The test

Test factors

Once again, the key to measuring relative risk intelligence is the realization that it can be closely identified with the ability, in this case of an individual team member, to perform creative learning in the problem (i.e. business) area being targeted by the team and integrate the results of creative learning into the distributed organizational knowledge base that supports decision making and action. This leads, based on similar theoretical considerations to those used earlier to a five factor test of relative risk intelligence. The sixth factor, the ability of individuals and groups to learn, is not relevant because this test is focused on the individual level of analysis.

“Here are the five factors along with brief comments on each.

1. How does the individual being rated compare to other individuals in her/his ability to seek out, recognize and formulate problems in the team’s knowledge of the risk area? This is important because, once more, you can’t solve a problem, if you can’t see that you have one. So, the ability to perform the activities described in this factor is critical to the ability to learn about risks and reduce the risk of error in your solutions.

“2. How does the individual being rated compare to others in ability to acquire information (including experience) that is relevant to helping to develop new ideas about how to solve problems in understanding the risk area? Acquiring information from external sources that we evaluate as solving our problems is often less expensive in time, resources, and effort, than figuring out the solution to a problem ourselves.

“3. How does the individual being rated compare to others in ability to formulate new ideas or solutions in the risk area? This is about coming up with new ideas, a dimension that’s essential to problem solving, and to arriving at alternative models that can help in reducing the risk of error. An important factor is the attitude of the individual to new ideas and how they ought to be introduced. Some individuals are mistrustful and even hostile to new ideas, both ideas of their own, and especially, those of others. They tend to want to cut short discussions developing new ideas. They also may restrict themselves in the range of methods they use to develop new ideas. The ability to develop new ideas is critical for the team’s effectiveness in distributed problem solving, because it is an important factor in producing the necessary variety of new solutions the team needs to evaluate to arrive at effective solutions to its problems.

“4. How does the individual being rated compare to others in ability to criticize, test and evaluate the new ideas it formulates to solve problems in its targeted risk area? This dimension is about the ability to eliminate errors through fair comparison. Again, I explain what fair comparison is in Appendix 3. Without it, an individual’s evaluation of competing alternative solutions will be biased against arriving at solutions to problems that work and that are more likely to be true than the solution’s competitors. Fair comparison is what allows us to select solutions that carry with them the minimum risk of error. If an individual can’t do this better than other possible team members, he/she will be less capable than others of learning about risks in a way that minimizes the risk of error.

“5. How does the individual being rated compare to others in her/his ability to integrate (i.e. broadcast, make available in searchable sources, share, and teach) the solutions to problems the individual or the team develops? This dimension is about an individual’s ability to integrate new knowledge once creative learning produces it. The ability to keep records is very important here. But the individual’s capabilities to search, share, teach and broadcast are even more important.”

The report provides a method for developing RRI ratio scores for candidate team members based on the Analytic Hierarchy Process. In Part Two, I’ll move to the question of developing an adaptive team, once people are recruited for it.

Tags: Complexity · KM Techniques · Knowledge Integration · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Denning // Aug 12, 2008 at 12:24 am

    Hi Joe,
    Interesting post. One issue, though, is whether this is the counsel of perfection. How often can this approach be implemented in real life?
    In most of the teams that I have come across, including the high performance teams, there usually wasn’t some ideal selection process at the outset, where the best of the best could be recruited. Instead, people had to start out with limited array of flawed individuals who happened to be available. The principal practical challenge is not, how do we pick the best team, how do we make the best out of the actual crew that we currently have? Over time, the membership can be sometimes be adjusted, but at the start, the options are often more limited. What I’m interested in is: how do some some teams pull that off and achieve exceptional performance, without necessarily having 100% first-round draft choices? What are the factors that lead to that result? Can they be replicated?

  • 2 Joe // Aug 12, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your reply. As you know from my post in actkm, there is a second half of this story I’ll blog about later today. It deals with making the team work, once created.

    If your choices in constituting teams are severely limited you can still try to create an adpative team working with the individual capacities available to you. In cases where you have some choices about who will join the team you can apply the method I’ve written about here to help you choose team members.


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