All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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The President Should Be the One With the Highest Risk Intelligence

May 2nd, 2008 · 1 Comment


The Relative Risk Intelligence (RRI) of a President, Prime Minister, or other Chief Executive of a Nation State is the relative ability of the Executive to solve problems and reduce the risk of error in decision models of his/her Government in its various domains of activity or risk compared to other Chief Executives. Domains of risky activity could be energy policy, foreign policy toward the middle east or a particular nation, Health Care Policy etc. You get the idea; a domain of activity is any key policy issue area we think might arise during a Chief Executive’s term, as well as any currently unknown and challenging issues that might arise.


How important is the RRI of a Presidential candidate? Well, if we look at past Presidents of the United States, I think it’s plain that the best ones: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, were the best problem solvers. And the ones that really got the US into trouble: John Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and now George W. Bush have been our worst ones. In fact, under Mr. Bush’s leadership, the current administration seems to treat all problems by sweeping them under the rug and refusing to enforce existing laws in area after area.


RRI may be the most important characteristic of a Presidential candidate. After all, if President Bush had been remotely sensitive to the possibility that he might be in error, and to the possible consequences of being wrong, he might have found another way to deal with Iraq, or even intervening, he might have done it in a much less risky way. He might have had an entirely different attitude about relying on “Brownie” to run FEMA, or about using the phrase “axis of evil” to describe certain of our adversaries, or about relying so heavily on, and expanding US dependence on, external oil, or … Oh, well, I could go on and on about the current administration’s greatest hits. But what I’m getting to here is that we really ought to consider the RRI of the current three remaining candidates of the United States when deciding who to select. So how can we assess RRI? Here’s a line of reasoning that can get us there.


What’s the difference between the ability to learn about a type of risk and the ability to solve problems, where a ‘problem’ is defined as a gap between what we know and what we think we need to know about that risk?


And if there’s no difference, or not much difference, then why shouldn’t assessing the ability to learn about risks and reduce the risk of error in one’s decision models be the same thing as assessing the ability to solve problems and integrate the solutions into one’s organization or in this case, political system?


And why shouldn’t this ability be assessed as a candidate’s ability to perform creative learning in various problem areas, and integrate the results of that learning into the knowledge base of the Government and the political system that supports decision making and action?


Answering these rhetorical questions led me to 6 factors covering aspects of ability to perform creative learning and integrate the results, that one can use in doing such an assessment.


  1. How does the presidential candidate compare to other candidates in her/his ability to seek out, recognize and formulate problems in her/his knowledge of the various risk areas the Government must deal with? This factor measures the comparative ability to adapt to challenges by transitioning from ineffective routine learning and decision making to creative learning. This is important because creative learning is not the most frequent form of learning. That form is routine learning about the consequences of one’s actions, actions of others, and what we observe about the world around us. Creative learning is, in a particular sense, problem solving. But 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 solutions.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the others in ability to acquire information (including experience) that is relevant to helping to develop new ideas about how to solve problems? Acquiring external information is one of the most important responses we can make to a problem, just because something is a problem when the knowledge providing a solution to it is not available within us or within our organizations and also because acquiring information from external sources that we evaluate as having solved our problems is often less expensive in time, resources, and effort, than figuring out the solution to a problem ourselves.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the others in ability to understand and use the results of individual and group learning (new knowledge) developed by her/his staff. This is another important feature. Evidently President Bush had a very limited circle of people he looked to for advice, and they, almost without exception, were people who addressed problems in collaboration with relatively small groups of trusted advisors. Their circle of trust was not very large, and the variety of new ideas they had to call upon was apparently exhausted before very much of the Administration’s first term in office had passed.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the others in ability to formulate new ideas or solutions in the various risk areas? 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. Some important factors related to this dimension include the problem solving capability of one’s projected executive staff, and also, the variety of methods available to members of the candidate’s projected executive staff to help in generating new ideas. Another important factor is the attitude of the candidate to new ideas and how they ought to be introduced. Some candidates severely restrict the communication of new ideas from individuals and groups and also don’t provide much in the way of resources to enable them. Such restrictions will undermine distributed problem solving by restricting the variety of new solutions that can be evaluated, and therefore increasing the likelihood that an effective solution will never make it to the evaluation process.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the others in ability to criticize, test and evaluate the new ideas she/he or the Government formulates to solve problems in the various risk areas? This dimension is about the ability to eliminate errors through fair comparison. Without it, 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 their competitors. Fair comparison is what allows us to select solutions that carry with them the minimum risk of error. If a candidate can’t do this better than his/her competition he/she will be less capable of learning about risks in a way that minimizes the risk of error.

  1. How does the candidate compare to the others in her/his ability to integrate the solutions to problems she/he or the Government develops into other areas in the Government and the political system generally? This dimension is about a candidate’s and related staff’s ability to integrate new knowledge once creative learning produces it. The ability to keep records is very important here. But the capabilities to search, share, teach and broadcast are even more important.

We can use these six factors to assess the RRI of presidential candidates in a number of ways. The easiest way is to just ask yourself who’s better on each of the 6 factors, and then ask yourself who has the best RRI on the whole.


Another way is to use a simple scoring system to get the scores on the individual factors. That is, you might ask people to evaluate whether the competing entities are average, above average, or below average in their ability, and then decide to assign to the competing entities a score of zero if they are below average, 0.5 if they are average, and 1.0 if they are above average. This is very easy to do and would produce scores varying from 0-6, when you sum the individual ratings across the six factors.


Still another way to improve on the scores is to weight each of the six factors differently according to your view of their importance and then use the 0, 0.5, and 1.0 ratings multiplied by the weight you give to each factor. You can then add up the weighted ratings to give you a total score for RRI. Not too long ago, I developed a model rating the importance of the six factors in another application context. Below are the importance weights adapted for this application. You can see they’re very different from equal weights. You may want to use these ratings as a benchmark and revise them using your own judgment. An easy way to do this is to ask yourself what percent of each importance weight your rating would be. That is, it could be 75% of the importance weight, or 110% of it, or whatever multiplier you wanted to use to change my importance weights to your own.




There are more ways to combine the six factors and to create scores on each factor, including using psychometric methods that produce ratio scale scores derived from human judgments tested for logical consistency. One very well known method for doing this is called the Analytic Hierarchy Process, which takes a good bit more effort than I’ve outlined above. But one place you can find about the AHP and software for implementing it is here: Simple AHP models such as the one you’d have to develop to do the above ratings can easily be completed using a spreadsheet.


So, if you want to, you can compute the RRI of the currently competing presidential candidates using any of the above methods and then you can vote for one with the highest Relative Risk Intelligence. But before you do that, do keep one last thing in mind. A few very good problem solvers, in general, hurt their presidencies grievously because they made key decisions without taking into account the risk of error. They were, of course, Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. So, in rating the candidates, it may be a good idea to take into whether each one might not have key areas of activity, where because of their personalities they are likely not to take account of the risk of error, but, instead, may think: “the devil take the torpedoes, full speed ahead!



Tags: Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · KM Software Tools · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

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