All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

All Life Is Problem Solving header image 2

The Problem Solving Pattern Matters: Part Eleven, Still More On Enhancing Developing Solutions: Evaluating and Selecting Among New ideas

February 25th, 2009 · No Comments


(Co-Authored with Steven A. Cavaleri)

We’ve now arrived at the question of how we can enhance processes of evaluating and selecting new ideas in such a way as to move the organization toward the Open PSP. When I discussed creating new ideas in earlier posts, I pointed to a range of measures as enablers of the creative process. But what measures are effective in “killing our worst ideas?” Pretty much the same ones as are important in generating new models. Criticism, like other parts of the problem solving process, must be distributed and open, and the changes in group environments, Information Technology, knowledge bases, and social technology, should also be implemented to enhance evaluating and selecting among new ideas in a pre-practical action context.

However, the implementation of these changes must emphasize their application in implementing a new policy of supporting fair critical comparison of alternative solutions. Implementing the changes without implementing the policy won’t work. The policy should emphasize the regulative ideal of Fair Critical Comparison to evaluate which of the alternative solutions stands up best to the most severe criticisms and safe-fail tests that can be developed. Applying that ideal should be limited to circumstances where application of Comparative Decision Making (CDM) is practical. But even where Recognition-primed Decision Making (RPD) is used, the most severe criticisms and tests possible should be pursued consistent with available time and resources for making a decision and taking action in the Operational Pattern (OP). Sometimes time and/or resources will be so limited that it’s necessary to rely on Authoritarian Decision Making (ADM) without any but the most superficial critical examination.

So, whatever group environments are created or enhanced must be open to fair critical comparison and killing our worst ideas through criticism. That means transparency, inclusiveness, and trust must be made characteristic of these environments. In particular, collaborative teams, facilitative groups, and communities of inquiry can all be very important in fair critical comparison, provided that they are open to it. Communities of inquiry, provided they are true communities of inquiry, are open in their fair critical comparison processes, and are characterized by civility rules. If collaborative teams have open critical processes they’ll also be very useful in killing our worst ideas.

Historically, Group Decision Making techniques such as Delphi, Nominal Group Technique, Joint Application Design sessions, Team Analytical Hierarchy Process, and facilitation techniques in general, have been directed toward finding, and sometimes shaping, consensus within a group. But the key to making Group Decision Making techniques work for fair critical comparison is to orient them toward criticism and managed conflict (and let “the chips fall where they may”) in evaluating new ideas rather than toward achieving consensus.

Group Value Measurement Technique (GVMT), was often used both to develop alternative models and to encourage critical evaluation of model alternatives. It emphasized statistical analysis of judgments and ratings in a manner designed to identify variety and disagreement, rather than consensus. Knowledge Cafés also work in such a way that alternative views emerge from the process.

There are a wide variety of other contexts for fair critical comparison. They include personal networking, project meetings, presentations of various kinds, story-telling, narrative elicitation, and any other context where people meet and exchange views. In each of these contexts the issue for fair critical comparison is the same. Are the contexts open? Are they transparent, inclusive, and characterized by at least moderate trust levels? If so, they can be important in contributing to fair critical comparison.

From an organizational point of view, overcoming aversion to criticism can be done by implementing a long-term, multi-faceted program to replace the notion that criticism has too many bad effects and should be avoided in favor of “positive thinking,” with the notion that criticism is necessary if we’re going to kill our worst ideas. Where top management will support the transition, Management can:

– Make policies of openness in eliminating errors in knowledge claims through fair critical comparison,

– Have training boot camps for managers and knowledge workers in critical thinking, critical styles, innovation, and fair critical comparison in team and project environments,

– Enable establishing communities of inquiry dedicated to problem solving through killing the worst ideas produced in the creative process,

– Employ Group Decision Processes that emphasize critical approaches,

– Hire people with critical skills and favorable attitudes toward critical approaches, and

– Modify business processes, so that criticism is introduced into the decision making process in an impersonal way that facilitates creative learning by both the individual and the organization.

The last item on this list is particularly important because it can be used to gradually introduce the critical outlook into organizations, even when Management doesn’t want to establish an explicit policy of introducing fair critical comparison during error elimination.

Some of the training we mentioned can help people to use criticism and be more comfortable with it in communities of inquiry, teams and other groups. And IT applications can integrate people into the flow of critical ideas in a natural way related to their job roles. While they do their jobs, people can receive and give criticism in an impersonal way that can be easy for them to live with.

Moderating the inevitable conflict resulting from critical exchanges depends very much on training people in criticism and on enforcing civility rules. Managers and knowledge workers involved in critical exchanges must not allow these to get personal or political. We know it’s hard to prevent this, but if norms for critical exchange are supported by everyone, things are less likely to get personal and conflicts can be moderated.

To Be Continued

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