Super-Complex Problems. Can Smart Teams Ever Solve Them?

Zone IV Challenges

I was inspired to write this post while reading the blog of Carl Pabo, the accomplished MIT biophysicist. I have been thinking about his Zone IV challenges for a long time, but I did not have his label for it. You can read more about the zones at Carl’s Blog, but to put it simply, Zone IV Challenges are big super-complex problems, that potentially endanger our civilization and may be too big for our little brains to solve in time.

Examples may be climate change, the collapse of financial systems, nuclear proliferation, radical extremism, and healthcare. You get the idea. Alas, there may be hope. Read on. The following is an excerpt of what I wrote to Carl on the subject and the potential of effective teams to help.

Super-Complex Problems. Can Smart Teams Ever Solve Them? via @charlielevin, Charles Levin - Thrillers Author


Do We Have Dinosaur Brains?

“I envision super complex problems, e.g., Climate Change, like a Plesiosaurus. The problem is huge and we have this little (human) brain dealing with it. So when something like Climate Change starts eating our tail, it takes a long time for the signal to reach our brain. In our small brain, we process the threat, often poorly, as in this case of politics overriding science. Then the brain sends a signal all the way back to the tail. In the Climate example, our tail is in some pain, but the brain has instructed the tail to wait it out. Before we know it the problem has not only eaten the tail but killed the host.

Meanwhile, on the hopeful side, you peaked my interest in your discussion of the Constitutional Convention as a model of humans coming together to solve big problems. Put smart, motivated people in a room without distraction and maybe something good will happen. I think maybe sometime in the distant past the US Congress may have even operated that way. The Civil Rights Act and Medicare are good examples.

Super-Complex Problems. Can Smart Teams Ever Solve Them? via @charlielevin, Charles Levin - Thrillers Author


The Power Of Teams

All of which leads me back to my experience studying and building the effective teams. Bear with me for a bit, because it may be helpful to your thinking. Twenty years ago, I ran a company with 250 employees. I got the bright idea to implement a Quality Improvement Process throughout the organization. This entailed, as I learned from training everyone in the company, the use of cross-departmental teams to come up with better ways of doing things. We leaped into it. We had 40 teams working simultaneously on Customer Satisfaction, the Hiring process, delivery logistics and more. We even applied and were a finalist for the Malcolm Baldrige Award.

Then one day, somebody asked me a question: how do you know your teams are being effective? Good question. We found a test for that. Here’s the Harvard Kennedy School version of that test. So, we put 25 of our best people in a room and first asked them to take the test individually. Then we broke them into five (5) groups of 5, had them discuss the same test and come up with a group consensus answer. Now, here’s the important and seemingly obvious part: 

An Effective Team will come up with a higher score than the best individual alone on that team scores. That would indicate real synergy is happening and collectively produce a better result than any single individual working on her own can.

To my dismay, I had a rude awakening: Four of the five teams in the test group scored lower than the highest individual score! Wow. So, now we have the alter axiom, an Ineffective team will produce worse results than the most qualified individual member of that team. In effect, the team dragged down the performance of their highest scoring member. Here I was with 40 teams spending 100s of hours doing what, most likely, 40 qualified individuals could do on their own.

I wasn’t giving up on teams; I just learned being effective as a team does not come naturally.

So, we embarked on training people to be effective in teams and ultimately produced better results as a team than as individuals. That in part is what inspired me to start Pathfinder Consulting Group in 1995. We did team training and development along with strategic planning and decision making.

The Collective Brain

By now you have guessed where I’m going with this. Perhaps with the right tools, we can develop a collective, collaborative brain that can come up with better answers to complex problems than any individual or even small group of people can come up with on their own. In part, that’s the promise of Artificial Intelligence, but I think humans are needed here. Certainly, the advent of the Internet has facilitated mass collaboration to a mostly positive result. I look at Crowdfunding as a perfect example. However, I don’t think the skill will come naturally. Perhaps your efforts and that of like-minded people will change that.

Now the question is: how do you amass the will and the skill to go beyond our individual human limitations, to come together, and to tackle with intensity these big Zone IV problems?

Keep up the good work! . . . .Charlie”

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