I recently re-read Atul Gawande’s excellent book — Checklist Manifesto. In it, he talks about the work by Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto. They classify problems into three types: simple, complicated, and complex. This led me to think about we tend to address each type of problem in knowledge management.

Simple Problems

… are ones like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once these are mastered, following the recipe brings a high likelihood of success.

Implications for Knowledge Sharing. For most people in the technical support, call center, and customer success world, knowledge sharing begins and ends with answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Done properly, this can help, but as you will see it isn’t enough.

The first step is to make your knowledge articles easy to understand from the customer’s perspective. It must be freely available on the web so that customers can self-diagnose and, if appropriate, solve their own issues. (For most consumer-facing and many enterprise-facing companies, the first place that clients go to for help on your product or service is Google.)

Unfortunately putting solutions to simple questions so that customers can self-serve isn’t enough.

Here’s what your customers are thinking.

“Just because you tell me there is a solution that I can find and self-solve, isn’t good enough. What I expect you to do is to correct the issue so it doesn’t happen again and interrupt my day. While I appreciate not having to talk to someone to fix my issue, I would really prefer if your product or service didn’t have an issue in the first place. If you know what is wrong and can explain it to me, then surely you can explain it to your engineers and fix it so it doesn’t interrupt what I am doing.”

Acknowledge Simple issues and prioritize making sure they are addressed upstream, before they impact customers.

Complicated Problems

… are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe. Success frequently requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination become serious concerns.

Implications for Knowledge Sharing. Putting a person on the moon was the largest collaborative effort in history. The program involved collaboration among 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.

Most people don’t realize that knowledge management has a rich heritage and an even bigger future with solving complicated problems. Here’s the thing. Most ‘cloud’ companies and ‘SaaS’ (Software as a Service) organizations can benefit greatly by looking at improving the customer’s experience through the lens of knowledge.

In fact, this is what we did with client Tyler Technologies — see the case study here. They had to get extraordinary results in a very short period of time, without jeopardizing their hard-earned reputation for stellar customer service. So they brought together a cross-functional team from different groups that looked at how they could improve the customer experience before, during and after each time the customer would need to contact them.

The link with knowledge? What piece of knowledge could improve the experience or reduce the need for the interruption in the customer’s life in the first place? Additionally, what do you wish the person upstream or downstream from you had known or shared with you to make your experience better?

They then went off and worked on a series of projects – all implementable in 3 months — to address what they found. The results? 300% productivity improvement, 350% reduction in costs. In three months. And, they continue to get better.

Complex Problems

… are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, the professors point out. Every child is unique. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient.

Implications for Knowledge Sharing. I believe that in the context of knowledge sharing, most people confuse complicated problems with complex, and give up. The single best way to address this is to look closely at the apparently insurmountable problem and see if you can break it down into simple and (perhaps even) complicated problems before you give up on it entirely.

There you have it. The three types of problems have different characteristics and different approaches to solving them. (If you have tips for how to solve Complex problems, do share!)

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