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 Fifteen, Summary and Conclusions

April 4th, 2009 · No Comments


(Co-Authored with Steven A. Cavaleri)

In this series, we developed the ideas of the Problem Solving Pattern (PSP) and Problem Solving Pattern Management. We pointed out how vital performing PSP patterns well is to organizational adaptation, distinguished the problem solving pattern from the Operational Pattern (OP) (Part One), defined four types of problem solving patterns, and pointed to one of them, the Open PSP, as the pattern most closely connected to the likelihood of successful adaptation — the state of the organization that PSP management should seek to achieve and maintain (Part Two). We then reviewed Steven Spear’s Chasing the Rabbit, and argued that his four capabilities were closely related to the four aspects of the PSP and that his picture of ‘high-velocity,’ ‘rabbit organizations’ was very closely related to our view of the Open PSP (Part Three).

We then worked our way through the three primary PSP processes, describing various initiatives of PSP Management that promise to enhance capability to perform these three processes and to move organizations away from other PSP pattern types and towards the Open PSP pattern. In Parts Four and Five we discussed ways of enhancing seeking, recognizing, and formulating problems: the importance of “looking for trouble.” In Parts Six, Seven, and Eight we covered enhancing developing solutions: coming up with new ideas. In Parts Nine, Ten, and Eleven we discussed enhancing developing solutions: evaluating and selecting among new ideas. In Part Twelve we covered enhancing communicating solutions to people who may need them. In Part Thirteen we commented on a post of Steven Spear’s explaining how high-velocity organizations out learn and out race their competition. And finally, in Part Fourteen, we related Spear’s four capabilities of high velocity organizations, to the capabilities for high quality PSP Management, and high quality Knowledge Management. Let’s now turn to some of the highlights of the series.

In organizations, adaptation depends on an entirely different set of processes than routine behavior, including action learning, knowledge creation, knowledge sharing, innovation, adaptation, “exception handling,” etc. These are, typically, intensely social processes that require human interaction, and learning more deeply than usual from experience. What is needed for better adaptation is higher quality PSPs. The PSP exists in parallel with the Operational Pattern (OP), the focus of routine behavior, and employees move between the two linked types of patterns as needed to do their jobs. The PSP gives life to organizations because it provides learning, innovation, and greater adaptability.

There are four types of PSPs that may be found or approximated in organizations. They are: the Closed PSP, the Mobilized PSP, the Frozen PSP, and the Open PSP. Among these four patterns, all can work from time to time in certain situations. However, the Open PSP is the one that is most likely to be associated with the highest quality of adaptation, because such PSPs enlist the abilities and ideas of the widest range of participants in all aspects of problem solving, learning, and innovation.

Developing standards, including ideas about acceptable defect ratios enhances problem seeking and problem recognition, because these support a process of monitoring outcomes to see if they exceed acceptable levels. If they do, it may signal a problem. Specifically, that knowledge about the operational process involved is flawed and new knowledge needs to be created.

Management can assist in moderating the natural fears of people by offering Problem Seeking, Recognition, and Communication “boot camps” to employees. It’s also important to get “feedback” on results to people, so they can do a good job of monitoring and evaluating the consequences of their decisions. This implies metrics development about implementation activities throughout the organization, and the various aspects of the PSP. Another aspect of providing feedback so people can recognize problems is to use Information Technology to provide relevant information (and sometimes knowledge) that is “baked into the jobs” of knowledge workers. Finally, the most important way for Management to enhance the problem recognition capacity of an organization is for it to initiate and maintain a policy of “openness,” and “looking for trouble,” in problem seeking and recognition.

No methodology can guarantee producing both new and “good” ideas, but there are things we can do to make their production more likely. A few of these include: implementing policy allowing knowledge workers to access Web 2.0, 3.0, and future generations of web technology for interactions with others outside the firewall; introducing a comprehensive organizational support system for openness to new ideas; constructing “knowledge bases” that actually distinguish knowledge from information; and implementing IT applications that enhance the capabilities of individuals to create new ideas. Organizations should also introduce training for knowledge workers in the use of social technologies effective in providing an environment where transparency, inclusiveness, and trust can be increased, and new ideas at both individual and collective levels can be stimulated by social exchanges. Introducing openness to new ideas as a policy and getting the organization to commit to it, is also critical. Finally, current organizational knowledge bases don’t distinguish knowledge from information, and record the track record of past performance of knowledge claims used by the enterprise. If they did, this would be a great help in generating new ideas.

Alternative solutions, as we create them, are, in the end, alternative beliefs. The process of belief selection is ultimately Darwinian in character, and the final context of that selection is performing a solution and experiencing post-action outcomes. There are three primary types of processes that people frequently follow in evaluating and selecting beliefs in the pre-action context: Authoritarian Decision Making (ADM), Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPD), and Comparative Decision Making (CDM). CDM selection among alternatives is more prevalent in Open PSPs than it is in other types though all three types are used to some degree in each type of PSP.

In evaluating and selecting alternative solutions using CDM, the criteria we use and the way we combine them together, comprise a kind of measurement model for a regulative ideal for comparison prior to selection. The Open Problem Solving Pattern requires that the pre-action evaluation and selection process we implement, ought to be one that provides for fair critical comparison and for the most severe test possible, within the bounds of practicality, of any proposed solution to a problem; so that solutions in error are eliminated before we have to implement them in action. We ought to set up as Darwinian an environment as we can for evaluating ideas, on the assumption that the solution or solutions that best survive the pre-action critical process, are the ones most likely to to work, when we move from the PSP back to the OP. 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, in a context of transparency, inclusiveness, and trust, to enhance evaluating and selecting among new ideas in a pre-practical action context. However, implementing these changes without implementing the policy of fair critical comparison won’t work. Both are necessary for the Open PSP.

In an Open PSP organization, new ideas are communicated by interpersonal and electronic means in four categories of communication (or integration) activity: broadcasting, search and retrieving, teaching, and sharing. In each of these categories open communication in an organization is characterized by: high internal transparency; a high extent of distributed access to means of communicating information and knowledge; a high extent of organizational openness to seeking problems in new solutions created in the PSP; at least a moderate level of trust in the communications activity category; a high quality of electronic and interpersonal methods of communication; a high extent of collaborative integration in communicating solutions; short cycle times in integrative activities; a relatively low ratio of messages received to messages sent; and a relatively high velocity of communication activities.

Comparing Spear’s treatment of his four capabilities and corresponding rules for ‘Rabbit Organizations’ with how the PSP was defined and how the Open PSP was characterized, PSP categories 1), 2) and 3) don’t refer to capabilities or rules but to problem-solving related processes. They are, we think, the reference processes for Spear’s capabilities and rules, and what these capabilities and rules are about is performing the PSP well, and, as a result, being successful in adapting to error. Also, Spear’s view that high velocity organizations institutionalize inductive (theory-building)/deductive (theory-testing) cycles to produce higher quality knowledge faster and more consistently, is very similar to the view one of us has been writing and teaching about for some time. Namely, that the most adaptive organizations are those that are best at initiating and executing Knowledge Life Cycles (KLCs). The process of knowledge production (or problem solving) at the organizational level of analysis in the KLC includes: information acquisition (a theory-building step), individual and group learning (a theory-building step), knowledge claim formulation (a theory-building step), and knowledge claim evaluation (a theory-testing step). We also argued that Spear’s Capability 4 is the capability for high quality PSP Management. Comparing our view of Knowledge Management, with Capability 4, and with our earlier treatment of PSP Management, we concluded that Capability 4, the capability for high quality PSP management, and the capability for high quality KM, are one and the same.

Finally, the relationship between organizations with Open PSPs and rabbit organizations, is that Open PSPs are the typical form of PSP found in rabbit organizations. In these organizations, employees have both the authority, and the duty to seek, recognize and formulate problems. They also have both the opportunity, and the obligation, to “swarm” and solve problems using “the scientific method,” thus exemplifying the Open PSP characteristic of distributed problem-solving. Further, the characteristics of transparency, and spreading new knowledge to those who need it, are shared by rabbit organizations and the Open PSP. Since organizations characterized by Open PSPs, “rabbit,” and “high-velocity organizations” are one and the same, it follows that the various PSP Management initiatives discussed in this series, including, the ones summarized above are management initiatives for moving organizations toward the “high-velocity,” as well as the Open PSP state.

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