How the stiff upper lip is the enemy of knowledge sharing

Here’s a quote from a BBC news article yesterday:

Keep Calm and Stiff Upper Lip

The UK's "stiff upper lip" culture may explain why it lags behind other countries when it comes to beating cancer, say experts.

Researchers, who surveyed nearly 20,000 adults in six high-income countries, said they found embarrassment often stopped Britons visiting the doctor. Respondents in the UK were as aware of cancer symptoms as those in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but more reluctant to seek help, they said.

When you drill down to the underlying reason behind “embarrassment” or “reluctance to ask for help”, you usually end up with “pride”.

This reminds me of one of my “seven deadly syndromes of knowledge-sharing”.   I called it “Real men don’t ask directions”, or “TomTom syndrome”

Imagine the scene: You’re on your way to a dinner party at a friend’s house; you left home a little late, so now you’re in a hurry and the quality of your driving is deteriorating.  Your partner is unsettled and tells you that “she’d prefer to get there in one piece than not at all”.  Now, just to add to the tension, you have a nagging thought that you might have taken a wrong turn. You carry on though, hoping that you’ll happen upon a road-sign or a landmark, but none appear. Finally, your partner breaks the silence and tells you what you already know.  You’re lost!    “No problem”, she says triumphantly pronouncing the solution; “pull over by that man over there and we’ll ask for directions”.

Of course, it’s not exclusively a male problem, but it does seem to be the case that men suffer from this syndrome more than women.  It’s hard to ask for help.

We have all had times when we have that nagging sense that “there might be a better way to do this”, or “perhaps someone else has already figured this one out”.  What stops us from asking around for solutions and ideas for improvement?  Sometimes it’s a sense that we’re supposed to know the answers.

Why would I want to show everyone else that I’m incompetent? That doesn't seem like a route to promotion.  However, once I've solved my problem, I’ll be happy to share my solution.

The truth is, the biggest challenge to organisations who want to get more from what they know, isn't that they have a knowledge sharing problem.  It’s that they have an asking problem.

It’s also true to say that we often turn to technology for help when a conversation would be more timely, more accurate and more helpful – whether that’s with a doctor, a local resident or a knowledgeable colleague who would be only too willing to help.

Giving Opinion and Sharing Experience

Last week I spent a day in The Hague, delivering a KM training programme to a group there.As part of the day, after an experiential exercise adapted from the Marshmallow Challenge (which was great fun!), we had a more detailed discussion about the Peer Assist technique.

A Peer Assist, as Geoff Parcell and I said in “Learning to Fly”  is

...a meeting or workshop where people are invited from other organisations and groups to share their experience, insights and knowledge with a team who have requested some help early on in a piece of work.

Whenever I teach how this works in practice, I always emphasize that the invitees to a Peer Assist are there to share their experience, rather than give their opinions.  Experience, you see, is a precious commodity, an earned reward because someone was present, involved and personally learned from an event – and hence can share their story first hand.

Opinion is cheaper and easier to come by.  I can google for opinions; I can give/receive opinion in a LinkedIn group;  I can email you my opinion. I can receive opinions on a blog posting or a tweet.  Sometimes the opinion given is rooted in experience, but not necessarily. It’s often “retweeted” opinion, amplified from someone else.  This video where members of the public give their opinion on the new iPhone (or so they think!), is a classic example of retweeted opinion - the unwitting stars of the show have absorbed so much of the iPhone 5 hype that their received opinions distort their personal experience!

The language we use around Opinion and Experience is interesting.

"Do you want my opinion on that? Let me tell you what I think…. "

Opinion is something which is given.  It’s transactional.

It’s like me buying a coke from a vending machine.

Coke vending machine

In contrast, we would never say “Let me give you my experience”!

We usually ask “Can I share my experience with you?”

As you share your experience with me, I begin to enter your world. I can feel how you felt, see what you saw, think what you thought, and then ask about what I don’t understand.

Sharing experience isn’t transactional – it's a conversation. It’s relational.  It’s like we are sharing a meal together.

Why is this important? We have seen a dramatic rise in the number of social channels which surface opinion - within and beyond the boundaries of our organizations.  For people like us, who work with knowledge, this is a good thing. We need to put that opinion to work and make sense of the patterns and sentiment available to us.

But all that experience is also still available for sharing....

This post is a plea for us to remain ambidextrous – let’s continue to be smart at working with opinion, and let’s also strategic about learning from experience.

As we immerse ourselves in transactional tide of opinion, let’s make sure that we can still see the richer, personal knowledge available through the sharing of experience. We need to spot the relational opportunities as well as the transactional ones.

Take a closer look at the bottom of that coke machine, and you’ll see what I mean. It's the real thing.

Curiosity has landed - but is it alive and well in our organisations?

Click to download the Knowledgeable BrochureWell, hats off to NASA and their partners for pulling off an amazing feat of project planning, innovation, technological wizardry and collaboration. That MARDI video was quite something. Curiosity has landed – let’s see what it finds. I’ve been reflecting on the topic of curiosity recently, and in fact it even made it onto the cover of my most recent brochure!

In many respects, it is curiosity which closes the learning loop.  We can invest vast amounts of effort in learning, reviewing and capturing (when we don’t have an immediate customer to transfer newly generated knowledge to) – but if nobody is curious enough to want to learn from the experience of others, then there is no demand - and no marketplace for knowledge exchange.

That’s why Thomas Friedman wrote about the importance of the “Curiosity Quotient”, created the equation:  CQ + PQ > IQ  (PQ is Passion Quotient) and wrote:

“I have concluded that in a flat world, IQ- Intelligence Quotient – still matters, but CQ and PQ – Curioity Quotient and Passion Quotient – matter even more. I live by the equation CQ+PQ>IQ. Give me a kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over a less passionate kid with a high IQ every day of the week.”

As we look to make our organisations more effective in their use of knowledge, let's keep one eye on how  we can increase the levels of curiosity. We can do this through any number of means: leadership encouragement and open questions, raising the levels of awareness of projects and activities, curation, gaming, social serendipity, thinking out loud, peer challenge and peer assistance, overcoming "not-invented-here" and making our organisations a safe place to ask for (and receive) help.

If we could accomplish more of this, then who knows what new life we might discover in KM?

Lessons Learned or Lessons Earned?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtJv4QXE0RA

Earlier this year I presented at Henley Business School's annual KM Forum event, on the subject of "Lessons Earned". They kindly recorded the event, and I have just edited and posted a ten minute excerpt on YouTube.

Watch it to find out:

How project lessons are like a leaky bucket... Why frequently asked questions aren't frequently right... Why captured knowledge is like a dead butterfly collection... How 'not hiding' is different to sharing... And why curiosity is good for business, even if it is bad for cats!

Read More

Paying knowledge forward - Vancouver's Olympic gift to London Heathrow

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qTg89yObMs

It's always nice when two pieces of work converge.

I've had the pleasure of consulting to BAA's KM team at Heathrow over the past month, and in parallel, have been researching the knowledge transfer processes which surround the Olympic Games. Both of these are good stories.

I was impressed to see the video below, which was Vancouver's "knowledge gift" to Heathrow. Nicely produced, and well received.

Read More

Lessons Lost

Following on from my last post comparing operational effectiveness with knowledge effectiveness, I’m reminded of the “Choke Model” from my BP days.  The choke model was a way of modelling production losses at every stage in the process, for example during the refining of crude oil to produce the raw materials and refined products which customers want to buy. Starting with 100%, every step in the process was analysed, and the biggest “chokes” were identified and targeted for improvement.  There is a belief in BP that the total of all of these small percentage production losses across all of its refineries was the equivalent to having a brand new refinery lying dormant!  Now when you focus it like that, it’s one big financial prize to get after.

I think there’s a similar perspective that we could take looking at the way in which knowledge is lost during our efforts to “refine it” and transfer it to customers.  Sometimes we are so upbeat about “lessons learned” and “learning before, during and after”, that we start believing that we’ve got organizational learning cracked.  Well I don’t believe that we have!

Let’s take a walk through an organizational learning cycle and see where some of the “chokes” in our knowledge management processes might be.

Imagine that you’re working with a team who have just had an outstanding success, completing a short project. There’s a big “bucket of knowledge” there, but from the moment the project has completed, that bucket is starting to spill or leak its lessons.  (On a longer project, the leakage will start before the project has ended, but let’s keep it simple for now and say that memories are still fresh).

So from this moment, your lessons start to leak.  The team will be disbanded, team members join other projects, and people start re-writing the history of their own involvement (particularly as they approach performance appraisal time!).

Leak!

Let's have a project review or "retrospect" to capture the lessons.  Good – but not a “watertight” process for learning everything that might be needed.

  • Are the right people in the room?  Team?  Customers? Sponsor? Suppliers?  Partners?
  • Are you asking the right questions? Enough questions?  The questions which others would have asked?
  • Are people responding thoughtfully?  Honestly? Are people holding back?  Is there politics or power at play which is influencing the way people respond?  Is the facilitator doing their job well?  Are they reading the room,  pressing for detail, for recommendations, for actions?

Leak!

And then we try to write-up this rich set of conversations into a lessons learned report.  However hard we try, we are going to lose emotion, detail, connections, nuances, the nature of the interactions and relationships – and all too often we lose a lot more in our haste to summarise. Polanyi and Snowden had something to say about that.

Leak!

And what happens to that report?  Is it lost in the bowels of SharePoint?  Is it tagged and indexed to maximise discovery?  Is it trapped on someone’s hard drive, or distributed ineffectively by email to “the people we thought would need it”?

Leak!

And of course, just because it’s stored, it doesn’t mean it’s shared! Sharing requires someone to receive it – which means that they have to want it.  Are the potential users of this knowledge thirsty? Curious?  Eager to learn?  Encouraged to learning rather than reinventing?  Infected with “Not invented here”?  Believe that their new project is completely different? Willing to root around in SharePoint to find those lessons? Willing to use the report as a prompt to speak with the previous team, and to invite them to a Peer Assist to share more of their learning?

Leak! Leak! Leak!

So you see, it’s a messy, leaky, lossy business,  and I think we need to be honest about that.  Honest with ourselves as KM professionals, and honest with our colleagues and customers.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to address the leaks and losses - quite the reverse.  We should be anticipating and responding to each one.  Whether that means having a “knowledge plan” throughout the lifetime of a project, engaging leaders to set the right expectations, providing support/training/coaching/facilitation/tools etc.   There’s a lot we can do to help organisations get so much better at this.  They might not save the equivalent of a Refinery’s worth of value – but they might just make their workplaces more fulfilling, increase staff engagement and reduce their dependence on external consultants.

I think it starts with the business answering the question:

 

“Just how valuable do we really believe this knowledge is?”

 

 

If you look at the picture at the top of this blog and imagine it’s happening on a beach somewhere, then it’s just part of the fun in an environment of abundance.  You can fill the bucket up again and again...

If the picture was taken in a drought-stricken part of the world – an environment of scarcity – well that’s a different story.

The value of experience - from the King's Speech.

One of my favourite moments from one of my favourite films comes in “The King’s Speech”, when Bertie (King George VI – Colin Firth) confronts his speech therapist, (Lionel Logue, played by the brilliant Geoffrey Rush), revealing that he now knows that Lionel – who has been treating him for some time – actually has no formal qualifications.

Lionel: It’s true.  I’m not a doctor and yes, I acted a bit, recited in pubs and taught elocution in schools. When the Great War came, our boys were pouring back from the front, shell-shocked and unable to speak and somebody said “Lionel, your’ very good at this speech stuff.  Do you think you could possibly help these poor buggers”.  I did muscle therapy, exercise, relaxation but I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening.  That must ring a few bells with you Bertie?

Bertie:

You give a very noble account of yourself.                  

Lionel:

Make inquiries.  It’s all true.

Bertie:

Inquiries have been made!   You have no idea who is breathing down my neck.  I vouched for you and you have no credentials.

Lionel:

But lots of success!  I can’t show you a certificate – there was no training then.  All I know, I know by experience.  And that war was some experience. Lock me in the tower.

 

That’s the bit:   All I know, I know by experience.

As Knowledge Professionals, I believe that one of our most important tasks is to discover, surface, and give voice to experience.

When I’m explaining or facilitating a Peer Assist process, I make a point of emphasising the difference between people giving opinion and people sharing experience.  We can Google for opinions; they are cheap and easy to come by.  Experience, in contrast is a more precious commodity.  It’s earned, it’s won, it’s personal, and it’s unarguable.

This is why story is such an effective medium for the transfer of knowledge.  People tell stories about their experience.  If they presented or wrote them down, they inevitably filter, over-summarize, and post-rationalise with opinion and analysis – and it’s in that process when the waters get muddied, the purity of experience is lost – along with messages embedded in the tone of voice and body language.

I’m not denying that there is value in KM processes and tools which elicit opinion and advice.  Lots of discussion forums work well on that principle. Great.  Let’s bank that.  But let’s not confuse giving opinion with sharing experience.

How many opportunities do people in your organisation have to share experience, or listen to others sharing theirs?

Tools to support this include Peer Assists, Appreciative inquiry, Knowledge/World cafes, Anecdote Circles...

How many experience-sharing tools are in active use in your organisation? And do they, as Lionel Logue might have said - give you "Lots of success"?

When answers aren't clever...

Naguib Mahfouz was a Nobel prizewinning Egyptian author who published over 50 novels, and died a few years ago, aged 95.  I have to confess right now that I haven’t read any of his work - but I often cite one of his quotations, and use it in my "Quotations Gallery" icebreaker exercise:

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

I think that nicely articulates some of the problems we see in discussion forums and other knowledge exchanges, and one of the reasons that communities of practice are sometimes difficult to get started. We can coach and  encourage people to be wise – to be willing to ask questions and request help and advice – that’s a healthy and valuable stimulus for discussions within a community. However, often the person reading their requests can feel that they need to provide “clever answers”. All too often, that’s where it stops.

I was talking with a knowledge manager last week who has been supporting communities in her organisation for several years, and has had particular success with her on-line discussion forums.  I often find myself working with organisations who are struggling to sustain momentum with this kind of thing, so I was interested to see what was different in her approach.  She talked me though the way the forum worked.

“and this is our Q&R section..”, she commented, clicking deftly through the tabs in the software.

“Q&R?  What’s that?”. I stopped her.

“Q&R?  Why, it’s questions and responses.  We used to call it “questions and answers”, but we found that it inhibited people who didn’t feel that they had a complete answer, but were willing to offer some kind of a response.”

I think that’s a great insight.  When we use the word “answer”, we raise the stakes for anyone thinking about making a contribution. But if I’m just being asked for a response, and the requester will make a decision on how to interpret and apply it... well, that’s a far less threatening proposition, for the person answering and the person asking.

ConocoPhillips, another company whose KM activities I admire, structure their discussion forums under the banner of “Ask and Discuss”.  You want me to join in a discussion?  That sounds fine!

I blogged earlier about a technique called “Speed Consulting”, which applies time pressure to a problem-solving meeting so that sharing “consultants” only have time to offer imperfect suggestions – rather than perfect solutions. It’s the same principle.

So let’s leave it to the people who ask the questions, to derive their own answers from our responses and inputs into the discussion.  After all, as Naguib would say, they’re the wise ones.

To be published in the next edition of Inside Knowledge

No marks for clever answers! 

No marks for clever answers... (but I bet the examiner smiled!)

Speed Consulting

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you combined speed dating and knowledge-sharing? I can’t own up to any firsthand experience of the former, but I’m told by friends who do, that you participate in a merry-go-round of three-minute exchanges on a room full of tables-for-two.  When the bell rings you move around to the next person.  If you like what you’re experienced, you make a note on your score-card, and, if the feeling was mutual, you take the next steps together. Tremendously efficient and less emotionally risky than the traditional approach - at least for most people! speed dating

To save a praying mantis experience, there are websites full of interesting questions that you might ask during your 3 minutes – for example:  “What luxury item would you take on a desert island?” and “What are your favourite words and why?”. Incidentally, “knowledge management” is not a good answer to the second question. So if speed-dating is designed to reduce the emotional investment, embarrassment and risk of failure  of finding a potential partner – what can we learn from that room-full of tables which we could apply in a KM context?

In my work with communities of practice and networks over the years, I have observed that when someone asks a question in a network, people are sometimes reluctant to offer up suggestions and ideas because they don’t have a complete answer or a polished response.  The longer the silence lasts, the more risky it feels to contribute.  People hold back, worried that they might be the only one to respond and that their idea will be perceived as being too trivial or too obvious – how embarrassing! If your community feels like this, and you have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, then let me recommend a simple “Speed Consulting” exercise which can help groups to break these bad habits.  (I’m indebted to my friend and consulting colleague Elizabeth Lank for introducing me to this technique).

A quick guide to speed consulting.

Identify some business issue owners In advance, identify a number of people (around 10% of the total) with a business challenge which they would like help with – they are to play the role of the client who will be visited by a team of brilliant management consultants. Business issues should not be highly complex; ideally, each issue could be described in 3 minutes or less.  Brief the issue owners privately coach on their body language, active listening, acknowledgement of input etc.  Remind them that if they are seen to have stopped taking notes (even when a suggestion has been noted before); they may stem the flow of ideas.

Arrange the room You need multiple small consultant teams working in parallel, close enough to generate a “buzz” from the room to keep the overall energy high. Round tables or chair circles work well.  Sit one issue owner at each table. Everybody else at the table plays the role of a consultant. The issue owner will remain at the table throughout the exercise, whilst the groups of “visiting consultants” move around.

Set the context Explain to the room that each table has a business issue, and a team of consultants.  The consultants have a tremendous amount to offer collectively – from their experience and knowledge - but that they need to do it very quickly because they are paid by the minute! They have 15 minutes with each client before a bell sounds, and they move on to their next assignment. The time pressure is designed to prevent any one person monopolising the time with detailed explanation of a particular technique.  Instead, they should refer the issue owner to somewhere (or someone) where they can get further information.  Short inputs make it easier for less confident contributors to participate.

Start the first round Reiterate that you will keep rigidly to time, and that the consultants should work fast to ensure that everyone has shared everything that they have to offer. After 15 minutes, sound the bell and synchronise the movement to avoid a “consultant pile-up”.

Repeat the process Issue owners need to behave as though this is the first group and not respond with ‘the other group thought of that!’. They may need to conceal their notes. Check the energy levels at the tables after 45 minutes.  More than three rounds can be tiring for the issue owners, but if the motivation is particularly high, you might manage 4 rotations.

Ask for feedback and reflection on the process Emphasise that the issue owners are not being asked to “judge” the quality of the consultants!  Invariably, someone will say that they were surprised at the breadth of ideas, and that they received valuable input from unexpected places. Ask members of the “consulting teams” to do the same. Often they will voice their surprise at how sharing an incomplete idea or a contact was well received, and how they found it easy to build on the ideas of others.

Transfer these behaviours into community life Challenge them to offer up partial solutions, ideas and suggestions when a business issue arises in a community.  Having established the habit face-to-face, it should be far easier to continue in a virtual environment.   The immediacy and brevity of social media helps here – perhaps the 140 character limit in Twitter empowers people to contribute?

So perhaps I should have just tweeted: @ikmagazine http://bit.ly/speed_consulting boosts sharing in communities #KM @elank and waited to see what my followers would respond with! To be published in the next edition of Inside Knowledge.