Today I was watching a TED talk about “Doodlers unite“. While this is a topic on its own I followed my nose and wanted to learn more about the presenter Sunni Brown. So I stumbled on a slide from her that was titled ‘Fuzzy Goals” (thank you to Sunni for letting me use it here).
Tacit or Informal Knowledge
Every few years Knowledge Management appears on the top of the list as part of organizational objectives. KM as it is usually abbreviated is not a clear cut thing and people struggle with it. That is mainly based on the two very different types of knowledge that exists. Explicit knowledge is what we can easily document and explain to others. Tacit or informal knowledge is the tricky part.
The Business Dictionary says Tacit knowledge is the unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalized information. It is integral to the entirety of a person’s consciousness and is acquired largely through association with other people.
Or in clear English: With tacit knowledge, people are often not aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others.
Let me give you an example:
When you intend moving to a new city or neighborhood, you do your research where you want to live. Say you have kids, are into sports and have a dog. This drives a bit of the selection and the information about schools and the like can be found in explicit knowledge systems like maps, council websites, the local library, and the like. Now very likely this is not sufficient. You may want to know what the neighborhood is really like, so what streets to avoid, like “don’t go there it’s a high crime area” or “the views are fantastic there! although the cold easterly makes it nearly impossible to enjoy it.” This is not written down anywhere and it can make a decision go the other way.
This occurs in organizations a lot. People know a lot of things. Just think of the time when you started a new job. How much did you find from the policies and procedures repository, the intranet or by talking to people? Right, the policies! Of course!
Just kidding, you probably haven’t even looked at these lately unless somebody pointed you to it. In New Zealand that happened just recently when the copyright law changed and most companies adjusted their Internet use policy.
What to do?
Researchers came up with a neat model. They said tacit knowledge becomes over time explicit knowledge through sharing and telling. Explicit knowledge snippets get connected with other snippets and build an interwoven encyclopedia (Wikipedia comes to mind, right?). Then people start and continue using this information. They learn. And they combine it again with their experience, emotions, and other sources. It becomes tacit knowledge again for each and everyone of us. And the circle continues.
Where do people find the time
.. and document that tacit knowledge? Do they have a surplus of time? How many are contributing? Public systems like Wikipedia or Facebook thrive. They must be doing something right.
Most organizational KM systems are boring, tedious and not fun. They don’t animate people to contribute, share, or simply search for information. The systems are complex and over-engineered. Because they are not loved and not used the data stores are incomplete. And instead of growing they become stale and practically worthless.
People like to produce, to share, and to make something. I believe all people are interested in making that stuff happen within their organization. Rules and regulation, compliance requirements and the odd person who doesn’t like can spoil the party quickly. Hence it becomes a balance act what do you (as an organization) regulate and where do you leave it to the community to regulate itself. At some stage you have to trust the person to do the right thing.
I rediscovered a short and to the point video clip by Richard St. John. He presented in sharp way “What makes people successful?”
Richard brings up 8 examples from successful people. Here is what they said is important for them to achieving success.
Passion: I do it not for money but because I love it
Work: It’s hard work and I’m having fun doing it.
Practice: Get really good at what you are doing.
Focus: Be clear on the one thing you want to achieve.
Push: Push yourself mentally and physically. Have thoughts like being not good enough? Get pushed!
Serve: Whatever you do, it needs to be of value to others.
Ideas: Have great ideas using “listen, observe, be curious, ask questions, solve problems, make connections”
Persist: Perservere through failure and CRAP (criticism, rejection, assholes, pressure)
I look at this list and can’t help thinking, this is elementary stuff. You need to have passion for what you do. Doing just a job is not making you successful. I wrote about that some weeks back. It is not always easy (persist) and requires time. You also need to put in the hard work to become good at it. And the “it” bit is quite important. This is your objective, your goal and Richard calls it focus.
That leaves 2 elements in the list that stick out because they are different. Firstly, it’s “serve”. It is an important differentiators. You cannot be successful without providing value. Secondly, it is “ideas”. Richard deviates in the semantics from the the 7 other elements. Ideas is a noun and not a verb, it doesn’t relate to doing. It is a statement, you need t have or generate ideas to be successful. Kindly, he provides a number of hints that can help identifying spaces for improvements or gaps that can be filled by products or services. But what it comes down to is successful people have a particular skillset that enables them to spot those gaps and generate possibilities how to address them.
This latter capability is in my opinion missing from Richard’s list of 8. What I mean is to generate possibilities how to address those gaps and actually making them happen. I would call it courage, which incidentally is one of the 3 values my employer is using for years: “courage to act”.
What is Success?
When discussing what makes people successful, it is important we understand what success actually means. Some people say making lots of money is success and countries measuring their wealth using the GDP are doing effectively that. Others see success as leading a happy and fulfilled life. Countries that measure the gross happiness level are using that metrics. I think success should be measured as the positive impact my work has upon the lives of other people.
From that view, a tobacco company is never a successful organisation and neither is a drug cartel.
Looking at the list of 8 + 1 again, the point serve needs an adjustment in definition: Whatever you do, it needs to be of positive value to others.
And that’s I think is as good a motto you can have in life.
“Do simple things well,” Sutton says. “It sounds easy, but it’s really hard. Get rid of dysfunctional politics. You can see how that has tormented large American companies, like the auto industry. Let outliers into your organization; welcome diversity. The fact is, Steve Jobs couldn’t get hired in most American companies, much less be the CEO. He couldn’t pass through the interview screens. Stay curious. Cultivate peripheral vision in your organization. Learn how to reframe your own offerings by looking both broadly and deeply across other industries. Recognize what you don’t know and find others who know more than you. Build a team at the top that has real power and talent. And don’t underestimate the power of strong cultural control. Find a way to create the old-fashioned unity of purpose.”
The quote is from an article by Alan M. Webber, former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, called “How Apple changed Computers and Computing.” He is citing Dr. Bob Sutton of Stanford University.
That little paragraph is fascinating. Sutton begins with simplicity. Do simple things well. And I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many simple things that can make or break your day, your project or your relationship. Those little things include saying “thank you” and meaning it. I listen to people on the phone and I can see people smile at the other end just by hearing their voice and how they say it. There is no difference when you do it face to face – mean it or don’t say it.
Simple things are more than words. Simple things are most processes at work. How easy is it to make a request for annual leave? Do you have to hunt for a form? Found it in the cupboard of the department admin, fill it out, have your boss sign and have it returned from HR because it’s out of date? I had that experience although it’s been a while. These days we have an online system, select the days and click submit. Done. Easy. Even better from the bosses view. He gets a notification, clicks on the link, sees how much leave I actually have and can view my leave request in relation to the other guys in the department. Click on approve – done. I wish all processes were that simple. Lots of politics involved where different departments have data ownership. Then it gets complex and paper rules. In a reasonably large organisation that means it doesn’t get changed easily.
I love the bell curve. 68% are the big mass doing things as they always been done or changing the process because it changed. Outliers are the 2.1% at the fringes. These guys are ahead of the curve and at the other end dragging a change as long as humanly possible. Outliers can make you think and they can make you cry. They show a new way and critically examine what is wrong with the current process. They also critically examine what’s wrong with the new one.
Making good use of the curiosity these guys bring to the mix is a challenge and an opportunity. In my experience they are full of ideas and not afraid to challenge anything.
Make things as simple as possible but not simpler, said Einstein. Some systems are complex. People are complex. Every single one of them. Because I said 68% are behaving in a similar way doesn’t mean these guys are simple. They behave for a particular process or in a defined environment in that way. Football players for example have a strong desire to score a goal individually. As a team they want to win the game. They follow the tactics of their coach. Each has given a task, defend, attack, goal keeping, distributing and so on. They follow the simple rules of football. Although the game plan can very complex and diverse depending on the opposition, the available players or the upcoming schedule.
Complex systems are made up of simple things. Control the ball, pass the ball, shooting, and tackling. And the same happens in a work environment. Specialists know specific tasks well but all know the rules of organisational behaviour: Listen before voicing your opinion, ask to understand, share your information, do your tasks on time, raise awareness of bottlenecks and shortcomings, learn to keep abreast in your field, … Basic and simple things that coming together build a complex system.
Look at the conductor of an orchestra.
And it all starts with doing the simple things right.
Assumptions are stifling
At lunch today my wife told us a brief story that our neighbours are moving house. My son, who works in the same company as the neighbour, confirmed that being talked about in the company. My wife continued with the reason why the neighbours, who are our friends, waited so long telling us. My son was of a different opinion, “I don’t believe that.” he said.
Now isn’t that interesting if you look at this conversation carefully. There are quite a few assumptions
First, my son and I think the story is about the neighbour is moving
Second, we believe the reason for not telling us earlier is my wife’s assumptions
Third, my son’s different idea of that reason
We could have gone into quite a debate about it at the time, but we didn’t and started asking question. And this is the core thing to do when dealing with assumptions.
Verify your assumptions against the information you have on the problem.
Look at the well known image above. What do you see? Most people can see a white triangle that overlays three black circles and a black triangle. And how do we do this? There is not really a white triangle, but 6 black shapes that suggest so. Our brain fills in the gaps based on our knowledge and experience. The most likely reason why we can see the white triangle is because it makes sense to our brain. The 6 black shapes for themselves have no particular meaning.
The gap widens
Assumptions are made constantly. It is part of being human. At some stage you trust your gut feeling. At some stage you have 90% of the data confirmed and make a decision. At some stage you test core functionality only before you move on. At some stage you can only say go when there’s no doubt at all.
Assumptions are a tricky business. We may start at the same (or nearly the same) point meaning we have been given the same task and the same information. Based on our experience and knowledge we start on the problem. If we don’t check back or check with each other we will divert more and more from the same path. Look for example at the TV show “Amazing race”. The teams are starting at the same time with the same information. After 4 stops (check back) there are significant differences how well and how fast the teams master the challenge. Without stops and the occasional “how did you do that” most teams won’t make it to the final finish line in a timely manner. (and this is an assumption!)
The trick is to be aware of your assumption and make those clear to everybody else who is involved. In order to do that you should write your assumption down. By doing that you and others can challenge any assumption and so achieve a higher degree of their reliability.
“Don’t Make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
It is essential in any relationship, in any problem solving task, in a business deal, or simply if you should buy that car or dress to do 3 things:
- be sure what the desired outcome is
- write down your assumptions
- challenge the assumptions by asking questions
The desired outcome can have multiple facets. What do you want? What does your partner want (or any other stakeholder)? Assumptions and facts are closely related. Don’t miss writing down ‘facts’ that are core to the solution or its approach. Sometimes you add those facts because that’s how it’s always been. Although, in this particular instance it isn’t and nobody thought it necessary to point it out. I have been in that trap.
In the Military they have a ritual to repeat the given order. Speaking it with your own words increases the understanding. It also more likely triggers questions. Hence I’ve started a habit to finishing meetings by having action items confirmed by the people who are doing them. I learned to have some minutes spare for arising questions and be prepared for making time for individual clarifications.
How do you deal with assumptions?