Behaviours


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Europe and especially the UK have experienced severe flooding during the past month and the future holds more of the same.  As this George Monbiot article from the Guardian sets out – the consequences were predictable and avoidable.  It’s not a knowledge problem.

The lessons have been learned, understood, researched and validated for decades.

We have known for years that trees play a vital role in drainage, and that land around tree roots will actually drain at 67 times the rate that grass drains – yet we are cutting tree-planting subsidies and increasing land-clearance subsidies, investing money in dredging and re-engineering rivers and building reservoirs.  We negotiated a mountain subsidy – rewarding farmers for clearing and farming the top of watersheds – precisely where the compacting effect of animals’ hooves will raise the run-off rate the most.  We even fly in the face of the advice we give to the developing world through our own Department for International Development. Do as we say, not as we do?  it’s the political knowing-doing gap.

So what’s going on?
Is really just ignorance, poor advice and misunderstanding?
Or is it a conscious decision to yield to lobby groups, hide behind the Common Agricultural Policy and “evidence-based” national policy-creation which kicks the common-sense can down the road for years – well into the next government.  The Guardian’s Monbiot (with an undisguised political standpoint) takes this perspective and it’s hard to argue against it, although I couldn’t limit culpability to the current administration alone.

One commenter on the article put it succinctly:

What is most infuriating about this is that it has all been common knowledge for at least 4 decades – probably longer. By far the most economic use of low grade upland is for flood control, and the cheapest way to do that is to let nature take its course. And natural flowing rivers are almost always more efficient at preventing flood peaks than any engineered routes. This has been standard textbook stuff since the 1980’s at least, and usually acknowledged in official documents (local plans, national planning guidance, etc) since the 1990’s. They have been re-wilding rivers across Europe since the 1980’s as standard anti-flood practice. It is absolutely nothing new to anyone with even the slightest academic or professional interest in the topic. And yet the sheer force of inertia and vested interests has resulted in billions of pounds/euros/dollars in malinvestment across the developed world.

I have consulted with ten different government departments in past years, and in each case, I have met with intelligent, rational, passionately expert civil servants.  There is no shortage of knowledge and insight, no shortage of common sense, and no shortage of commitment to offer the best possible advice to ministers.

It’s not the lack of knowledge, lack of lessons learned, lack of research,  lack of expertise, lack of professional advice or the lack of wisdom.

It’s the lack of moral courage to listen and do the right thing which gives politics a disastrous victory over policy.

In cases like this, knowledge serves us best when it is in the hands of the majority as well as the decision-makers – when understanding amongst the voters is raised to a degree whereby the policy-makers dare not take liberties with a better-informed and increasingly incredulous electorate. So thank you George Monbiot for such an excellent, incisive article which deserves a far wider readership.

Here’s hoping that knowledge-sharing truly is power.

Image from City A.M.Number 20, Fenchurch Street, London has always been a controversial building.  It has become better known as the “Walkie Talkie”, and was rechristened this week as the “Walkie Scorchie”, because the combination of the curved design, mirrored windows and some bright sunlight created a focus of solar energy which was sufficient to melt parts of an expensive Jaguar XJ parked nearby, and in a non-scientific experiment, to fry an egg!

Unwittingly, the architect had designed a building which worked as a scaled-down version of the solar furnace in Odeillo, France. I remember visiting this whilst on a childhood holiday, and was blown away by the lumps of melted rock on display.  I applied my sunscreen more carefully for the rest of my vacation.

Anyway, I say the architect unwittingly designed a building, but perhaps that’s being generous, because the same Architect (Rafeel Vinoly) designed the Vdara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, 3 years earlier.  The tall, sleek, curved Vdara Hotel, according to the  Las Vegas Review,

 

…is a thing of beauty.

But the south-facing tower is also a collector and bouncer of sun rays, which — if you’re at the hotel’s swimming pool at the wrong time of day and season — can singe your hair and melt your plastic drink cups and shopping bags.

Hotel pool employees call the phenomenon the “Vdara death ray.”

A spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which owns Vdara, said he prefers the term “hot spot” or “solar convergence” to describe it. He went on to say that designers are already working with resort staff to come up with solutions.”

So the same architect has designed two tall, curved, mirrored buildings which have both manifested the same unwelcome side-effect.

Not only that, but the Disney Concert Hall (not designed by Rafael Vinoly) had similar issues back in 2003.

You have to ask yourself, surely lessons learned from the Vdara Hotel should have been applied by the same firm as they designed the Walkie Talkie?  Surely the Death Ray experience would have burned itself into the memory of the firm concerned?

And would it be unreasonable to expect the Architectural profession to be aware of the Disney Concert Hall case, and consequently have prevented the flawed Vdara design sizzling tourists like ants under a magnifying glass?

Is it easier to learn from the failures and flaws of others, of from our own internal failures?  Well, it depends on whether the power of “Not Invented here”, disguised as “It’ll never happen here”, is greater than the professional defensive reasoning and displacement of failure Chris Argyris described in his brilliant HBR paper, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”
If you haven’t read it, and you work in the field of knowledge management, organizational learning, improvement or in any medium-large consultancy, then please do.  It’s 22 years old but it could have been written yesterday.

Here’s a taster to wet your appetite:

 “Any company that aspires to succeed in the tougher business environment of [today] must first resolve a basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.

Most companies not only have tremendous difficulty addressing this learning dilemma; they aren’t even aware that it exists. The reason: they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about.”

Argyris goes on to distinguish between the single loop learning approach of problem-solving and error correction, and the double-loop learning which addresses how organisations identify, discuss and enact change, and the dynamics, performance measurement systems and behavioural filters which can prevent even the most brilliant (often the most brilliant!) professional from seeing their role in something less than brilliant.

The case of the non-learning professional is not reserved for architects, of course – it’s just that their oversights can be so tangible.  The financial sector, energy sector and public sector have all had their own versions of the “walkie scorchie”.  It’s just that you can’t fry eggs on them.

Egg

As knowledge and learning professionals, we need to make sure that we’re visible, helpful  and active for these fried egg moments.

They are the moments when mistakes are too visible to be missed, and when even defensive reasoning is no defence.   We can help our organisations not just to learn from the specifics of one design error (we can certainly start there, and get our foot in the door), but we also need to have the courage and the influence (and partnership with OD and other functions) to look beneath to the structural and organisational factors which will ultimately determine how many times the organisation gets its fingers burnt.

Oh, and on a related matter, and if you’re thinking of buying one of these – be careful which wall you put it on!

Steve Ballmer waves goodbye

So Steve Ballmer leaves Microsoft within the next year, and his epitaphs are already being cooked-up by many commentators.

Most are lukewarm at best.

I had the privilege to share a platform with Steve at a conference in the late 90’s. He was presenting Microsoft’s collaboration technologies at a groupware (remember that term?) event.

Unfortunately, whoever prepared the laptop for their CEO’s presentation forgot to plug in the power supply.  10 minutes from the end of the presentation, there was an awkward moment when the “5% power remaining” message rudely appeared on the screen and a frantic Microsoft employee materialised  at the foot of the podium asking to plug in the cable.   He was waved  dismissively away by Steve, who declared to the audience that it would be a good test of the battery life.   The audience stopped paying attention to the content of the presentation, and started wondering with increasingly bated breath whether the battery would make it to the end.

Happily, it lasted the distance.

I’m not so sure what happened to that Microsoft employee though.

Steve kindly provided a written endorsement for “Learning to Fly” which, at the time, was a bit of a coup for Geoff and me.  However,  reading the more recent articles about the culture of competition in Microsoft, I’m wondering whether he made it as far as the chapter on creating the right cultural environment for knowledge-sharing.

This week, the  Washington Post  carries an interesting article describing how Microsoft’s stack-ranking damaged collaboration:

while forced rankings can boost employee performance immediately after the system is introduced, the gains fall over time, with people more focused on competing with each other than collaborating.

Slate.com revisited the fable of the two men running away from a bear.  One stops to put on running shoes; the other says, don’t be crazy – you can’t run faster than a bear.  He retorts, I don’t need to – I just need to run faster than you.

So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers’ shoelaces?

There were even cases of the most able engineers not wanting to be placed on projects with other high-calibre staff because they knew that they would be force-ranked against them at the year end.

Google’s “grouplets” aren’t the only knowledge-sharing contrast to Microsoft.  BP’s T-shaped Management approach (80% of your time should be spent on your objectives, 20% collaborating and sharing to support someone else’s objectives) was well documented in a much-read HBR article “T-Shaped Managers, Knowledge Management’s Next Generation.”

My favourite current example is Schlumberger’s approach to professional development which requires technical  staff pursuing recognition as principals or fellows (the two highest positions on the technical career ladder) to have led a community of practice, to which they are democratically elected by members of that community.  As a result, knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviours directly influence technical promotion.  You can’t be individually brilliant and make it to the top – you have to also be socially and behaviourally mature.

All of this feels like a thousand miles from forced ranking bell curves, and it reminds me of the importance of KM partnering with and influencing HR and Talent Management – something which is still relatively unusual.

Let’s hope that Steve Ballmer’s successor sees the connection between performance management and knowledge management, and executes a stack (ranking) dump!

One of my current clients needs to conduct a learning review from a 2-year IT project which, by her own admission, has had its fair share of ups and downs. The project is at its mid-point, so the main customer for the learning is the team itself. They don’t have much time to conduct the review (sadly just 90 minutes), so she asked me for some ideas for pre-work  for the team.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a full day to conduct an exhaustive review, so you have to work with what you have and help the team to quickly connect their hearts and minds to the review process.  It’s the heart bit which interests me here.

When we’re under time pressure, we tend to focus on the facts, the timeline, the plan, the process, contract, technology, scope and the deviations. Intellectual recall. In fact, most project review documents contain little more than this kind of intellectual recall. It usually takes a bit longer to get a team to talk about how they felt, and to draw out some the more people-oriented learning – let’s call that a kind of “emotional recall”.

I combined some ideas from Retrospects, After Action Reviews, Baton-passing and Future Backwards (Heaven and Hell) exercises into this approach. Enjoy the ride!

With thanks to Navcon

Part 1 – the pre-work:

Before the meeting, ask each member of the team to think back over the project timeline and to focus on their emotions at each stage. You can provide them with a template like this, with key dates or milestones marked to give a sense of orientation.

1. Ask them to sketch out their own “emotional rollercoaster”, paying attention to the highs and lows.

2. For the high spots, write down what went well, and why you think it went well.

3. Do the same for the low spots. What was difficult, and why do you think that was?

4. How do you think the rollercoaster is most likely to continue?  Draw the continuing journey.  Bring this to the meeting with your notes on the reasons for the highs and lows.

Part 2 – during the meeting.

Sharing the Past and Present.

  • Collectively, in the meeting, create a large version of the rollercoaster timeline on the wall.
  • Each participant draws their journey up to the present day, pausing to describe the lows and highs, and the reasons for these.   A facilitator should probe these reasons using the “5-whys”  technique to get to the underlying reason.
  • For each high and low, ask the group to express the reason as a recommendation – something that someone else should do to repeat the delight, or avoid the despair – or an action which should be taken in order to change a process such that the good practice becomes embedded.
  • Capture these recommendations on post-its and place on the rollercoaster.
  • Repeat for each member of the project team (towards the end, they can “pass” if someone has already identified a high or low. )
  • This should create a shared view of the past, and “how we got to where we are today”, with some useful recommendations captured. Consider who you might share these with beyond the team.

Creating the Future together.

  • Now ask each member to sketch how they think the project will go from now to the end date. You will probably get a range of options!
  • Focus on the best projected outcome and ask “based on all we’ve learned to date, what actions could we take to make this happen, rather than the less positive options?”. You can take feedback from the entire group, or get them to discuss in pairs or sub-groups first.
  • Capture these actions (with names!).

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of the ride.
Please be sure to collect your belongings as you leave and don’t forget to check your photo on the way out.

(more…)

Back in 2009, I blogged about some heart-warming examples of cross-industry peer assists,  involving Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Ferrari Formula 1 pit team.  Geoff and I wrote the story up fully in our second book, “No more Consultants“.

The specific example related to the operating theatre team improving their handover processes during an operation called the “arterial switch” – and the insights of Professor Martin Elliott and his colleagues who had the curiosity and the passion to approach Ferrari and ask for help.

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It reminded me of Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” where he 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.”

I was interested to see that Formula One was in the news again this week with another example of curiosity-driven cross-sector knowledge sharing – this time with public transport.  Train manufacturer Alstom, who say that the knowledge they gained has enabled them reduce a 2-day repair job to just 4 hours.

We need more of these “I wonder” moments to bring knowledge together, where curiosity triumphs over the “but we’re different” default reaction of not-invented-here cultures which drives those connections and overlaps apart.

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Sometimes you can’t make it on your own.  One of my favourite U2 tracks.  Now I can’t stop humming it!

Sometimes it takes an impossible challenge to get people to share and collaborate, as this fun video from Coca Cola shows.  Coke put a double-size vending machine into a site in the Philippines, which yielded two bottles for the price of one.  The only snag was that you had to find a friend to help you reach the coin slot.  So you win together by collaborating, or you both walk away with nothing.

Nicely done, Coca Cola!

Way back in the 90’s in my BP days,  CEO, Lord Browne had decentralised the business and created a “federation of assets” with a clear focus on performance.  This was a step forward, but not quite as big a step as it might have been, because with that focus on performance came a strong sense of independence – even to the point of competition.
Here’s a way to visualise this using Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.

flow 1

Browne did a lot to support peer structures and networking which was well documented, but his initial response to was to increase the levels of challenge further, whilst keeping the resources constant. This raised the levels of performance required such that working harder was no longer a solution.  Business unit leaders would do anything to hit their performance targets – even collaborate!  And collaborate was exactly what they did: sharing knowledge, resources, people, contracts, and effectively enlarging the area of “flow”.

flow2

This happened because collaboration became the only option, and competition was going to be as fruitful as two people fighting at the foot of a giant coke machine!

All of which leads me to wonder whether an age of austerity isn’t a good thing for knowledge management after all?

Have you heard the story of Billy Ray Harris?  It’s a heart-warming one.

Credit: KCTV5Billy Ray is a homeless Kansas man who received an unexpected donation when passer-by Sarah Darling accidentally put her engagement ring into his collecting cup.  Despite being offered $4000 for the ring by a jeweller, he kept the ring, and returned it to her when, panic-stricken, she came back the following day.  Sarah gave him all the cash she had in her purse as a reward, and as they told their good-luck story to friends – who then told their friends –  her finance decided to put up a website to collect donations for Billy Ray.  So far, $151,000 have been donated as the story has gone viral around the world.  Billy Ray plans to use the money to move to Houston to be near his family.  You can see the whole story here.

On closer inspection, it turns out that this wasn’t the first ring that Billy had returned to its owner.  A few years previously, he found a  Super Bowl ring belonging to a football player and walked to the his hotel to return it.  The football player rewarded him financially, and gave him three nights at that luxury hotel.   So the pattern was already established for Billy Ray, who also attributes it to his upbringing as the grandson of a reverend.

Whether you see this story as an illustration of grace, karma or good-old-fashioned human nature,  it illustrates the principle of reciprocity.  

Reciprocity is an important principle for knowledge management, and one which underpins the idea of Offers and Requests. 
Offers and Requests was a simple approach, introduced to make it easier for Operations Engineers at BP to ask for help, and to share good practice with their peers.  The idea was for each business unit to self-assess their level of operational excellence using a maturity model, and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.   In order to overcome barriers like “tall poppy syndrome”, or a reluctance to ask for help (“real men don’t ask directions”), a process was  put in place whereby every business unit would be asked to offer three areas which they felt proud of, and three areas which they wanted help with.  The resulting marketplace for matching offers and requests was successful because:

i) The principle of offering a strength at the same time as requesting help  was non-threatening and reciprocal – it was implicitly fair.

ii) The fact that every business unit was making their offers and requests at the same time meant that it felt like a balanced and safe process.

 

Like Billy Ray, one positive experience of giving and receiving led to another, and ultimately to a Operations community.  A community website for offers and requests underpinned the process, enabling social connections and discussions.

This is played out in the Kansas story, where the addition of technology and social connections created disproportionate value – currently $151,000 of it. 

In the words of Billy Ray, “What is the world coming to when a person returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?”

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