Encoding tacit knowledge for use in complex situations
The Greek architekton and the Latin architectus both literally mean masterbuilder, a person responsible for the design and construction of the built environment. We tend to think of Master Builders as those men who oversaw construction of cathedrals, and usually they came to their Master Builder profession from one of the trades, and the role was an extension to the craft they had learned in that trade. Each individual carried an immense amount of tacit expertise, of design, of engineering, of the performance of stone in different configurations, of managing a diverse workforce to actually get the building up, using – literally – manpower, supplemented with pulleys. They dealt with a huge degree of complexity, and without the understanding that today’s materials scientists, architects and planners can bring to bear. The cathedrals standing today honour the amazing accomplishments of these men. Ultimately, though, the sophistication and variety of large buildings overwhelmed the ability of any one person to encompass and manage it.
Scroll forward a thousand years to Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes with lucidity, insight, and the curiosity about how to improve the performance of interconnected elements which is surely one of the hallmarks of a systems thinker. The focus of his books is an exploration of how to improve delivery of healthcare, and in his third book, The Checklist Manifesto, he confronts the fact that the model of the masterbuilder no longer works, and yet the medical system continues to attempt to operate in its own form of masterbuilder, with a lead physician trying to pull together a huge range of specialisms and range of staff in service of the diagnosis and treatment of each patient. That lead physician is, in Gawande’s view, no longer unable to master all the complexity inherent in that, so this approach is unsustainable.
There are different types of problems. There’s simple ones, which basically call for a step-wise recipe. You might need to know a technique or two, but once you do then following the recipe should lead to a good result. Then there’s complicated problems, like sending a spacecraft to put a lander on a comet, the recent European Space Agency’s 2015 Rosetta project. These defined goals can be broken down into a set of linked tasks. Yes, they need a wide range of expertise, but the challenges and problems are intrinsically knowable. Complex problems are an order of magnitude more difficult to accomplish, and the reason is that the outcomes can’t be defined at the outset. Managing a team, for example, is intrinsically unpredictable. Yes, there’s experience to be gained from the management of other teams in other situations, but each team is literally unique. So if simple, complicated and complex work are so different in their characteristics, it would seem foolhardy to treat them all in the same way. Yet for each, Gawande makes a compelling case for use of checklists to capture knowledge, distil it, and then deliver it in the right format when it is required. In situations of complexity, a person or team doesn’t – and can’t – have all the critical expertise stored tidily in their heads, waiting to be recalled and reused. We all need to have the humility to recognise that we need to call on the expertise and help of others.
Situations today – medicine, the design and construction of immense buildings, and many other types of projects – create conditions of great complexity. And this complexity can’t be managed by a single individual, the volume and richness of the knowledge available exceeds an individual’s ability to handle it. The complexity creates a paradoxical requirement for freedom and constraint, freedom to act and adapt, and constraint to manage the extent of those adaptations so that the elements of the whole are still coherent and aligned. It’s a balance of innovation and discipline, protocol and craft, specialist ability and group decision taking. In his search for improvements to medicine, Gawande visited Boeing to understand how they devise checklist for pilots, and people in the business of building skyscrapers to understand how they manage a huge set of interconnected tasks, being delivered by a large set of interconnected trades. The building people use two sets of checklists, and the first is for the complicated, the tasks which need to be accomplished. The second is for the complex, and it ensures that the right conversations happen between the right people at the right times. This could be a key milestones in the overall set of tasks, but more importantly it is initiated when the unexpected happens, when complementary expertise needs to be brought together to respond to the complex, and reach a collaborative decisions which is acceptable to all. This second checklist makes sure that the right people talk, accept responsibility for a specific items and its impact on the whole, and act on the nuance and unpredictability which has presented.
We have been assuming that the masterbuilder role can still be executed, with all the complexity, breadth and depth of knowledge and expertise, and repeated and unpredictable change. We need an approach which helps us to manage the complexity adaptably, and supports us with breadth of expertise when the unexpected happens, as it surely will. No matter how expert you are, you can’t know it all, and outcomes are improved when key tacit knowledge is systematically captured and made available.