Dave Snowden:Finding New Solutions to Wicked Problems #KMWorld

Dave Snowden, is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2012 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Wicked Problems are Intractable Problems. Intractable problems are ones to which traditional solutions have been applied, but have not worked. These problems present a really strategic opportunity to Knowledge Management. If you can solve these problems, you will become vital to your organization. On the other hand, if you address only conventional problems, your knowledge management will never be anything but conventional — it will never be strategic.
  • Complex Adaptive Situations. These situations are not causal, they are dispositional. In other words, there is no direct link between cause and effect. Therefore, there are no drivers that can be identified and applied. Further, traditional failsafe design does not work. So don’t waste time hiring consultants or doing copious amounts of research. Instead, run several rapid safe-to-fail experiments to “probe” what is going on by testing quickly any coherent theory that emerges and then move on depending on the results of your results. Your portfolio of theories of test must include some contradictory theories. Otherwise, you haven’t cast your net widely enough and have missed something. In addition, some of the portfolio must be oblique — something intended to solve another problem altogether. (See Obliquity by David Kay.) Some of the theories in your portfolio should be naive, which means that they should be formed from the perspective of one who is not an expert.
  • Complicated Problems. These problems can be addressed by a traditional fail safe design. For these problems, there are leading theories or process that can be implemented.
  • How to design a Safe-to-Fail Experiment that addresses an Intractable Problem. Begin by answering the following: (1) Name of experiment, (2) Rationale for experiment, (3) Indication of success, (4) Indications of failure, (5) Amplification strategy (after success), (6) Recovery strategy (after failure), (7) Actions (to follow success), (8) Responsibility for actions (after failure). After you have done your preliminary experiment design, conduct as many as five rounds of ritual dissent to tighten your design.
  • Ritual Dissent. The benefit of ritual dissent is that it is an extraordinarily effective way of identifying weaknesses and potential problems with your experiment before you actually fund and carry out your experiment. Between each round of the ritual dissent, the planning group takes the criticism they received in the round just completed and use it to improve their experiment design. Dave Snowden recommends that you do as many as five rounds of ritual dissent to ensure that many people have had a chance to test your experimental design.



5 thoughts on “Dave Snowden:Finding New Solutions to Wicked Problems #KMWorld

  • October 25, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    David Snowden led us on a ritual dissent exercise during KMWorld12 – it was exhilarating, scary and helpful. Strongly suggest others use it to ‘proof’ designs.

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  • December 14, 2012 at 2:04 am

    Obliquity appears to be written by John Kay, not David Kay. David Kay is a renowned KM practitioner/consultant who has written a lot of stuff, but not this book… so I thought it was worth calling out. 😉

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