Peer Assist


In the last few posts we’ve been exploring what’s wrong with the way we position “lessons learned”.  In part one, we looked at the passive problem of people’s tendency to focus on the lessons rather than the activity of learning.  In part two, we looked at the negative associations of the term ‘lessons’, and the impact that this can have.

In part three, I want to look at the problem of ambiguity.

The label “lessons learned” trips off the tongue easily, but that doesn’t mean that everybody hears it in the same way. Learning appears in more than one place on an learning loop, so there is plenty of room here for confusion. It can be an output, an input, or an agent of change.
Here is one, very simple question you can ask to check whats going on in your lessons learned process.

Who is learning?

Here are potential three recipients of the learning – let’s imagine we give a badge of recognition in each case:


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It could be person or team who had the experience, who completed the activity and then reflected upon it.

In this case, learning is an output.


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It could be a function or department who learn from a team’s experience and make a change to a process, policy, standard or working practice –  thereby reducing the risk or improving the prospects for everyone who follows. In this case, learning is an agent of change to the structural capital of the organisation. It becomes an embedded inheritance for all who follow.


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It could be another team about to commence a new activity who are learning from the experience of a previous team. In this case, learning is an input. This input could proactively pushed to another team, or pulled by the new team, through a peer assist, for example.


It’s important to recognise that all of of these are valid and desirable outcomes , or there’s a danger that we allow learning from lessons to be a slightly self-indulgent team huddle.  Worse still, we focus on building the library of lessons rather than actioning the change that the learning should produce, see my earlier shaggy dog story about selling a BMW.

MAKE award winners ConocoPhillips and Syngenta both recognise the need to lubricate all parts of the learning and sharing cycle with appropriate senior recognition.

ConocoPhillips have their 4G awards:  Give (sharing knowledge), Grab (applying someone else’s knowledge), Gather (consolidating knowledge), Guts (sharing learning from failure).

Agri-business Syngenta loved this, and created their own TREE awards along very similar lines:  Transfer, Re-use, Embed and [share a difficult] Experience.

In each case, senior leaders are involved in judging and celebrating the best examples of these essential behaviours, and the teams or individuals concerned receive a physical recognition award.  It’s very clear who is learning, who is sharing, what is improving and where the value is – all of which is the best antidote for ambiguity.

Syngenta TREE award

Syngenta TREE award

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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Last week I had the opportunity to see Matilda  in the West End. Coincidentally, it’s just opened on Broadway to well-deserved rave reviews.
For the uninitiated, it’s a musical production of Roald Dahl’s book of the same name – about a little girl who develops her own knowledge, imagination, stories and her own special powers in some pretty extreme family and school circumstances.  It’s Dahl, (and Tim Minchin who wrote the musical), at their best – my family loved it.  Here’s a 90 second clip:

 

Reading the programme in the interval, I was really  struck by a phrase in an interview Tim Minchin’s Olivier Best Director acceptance speech:

“Denying stories is denying the most human part of being a human.
Without stories we’re just eating machines with shoes.”

I like that.

It challenges me a bit too, as I think about the way in which organisations often treat their employees, focusing only on their current role and failing to surface their stories and experience. It’s like they’re “working machines with shoes” rather than people with a wealth of experience.
Here’s a picture I ask people to reflect upon during my training programmes on knowledge-sharing, networks and communities of practice. I ask them to describe how it relates to their own organisations.

Upturned jigsaw pieces

They usually talk about not knowing who to connect with, not knowing where expertise and relevant experience lies, relying on serendipity, not knowing where to start (no corners or edges), lacking strategy (no picture to copy) etc.
Then we discuss what it would take to turn the pieces over, so that we learn more about each others’ stories.

That then leads nicely into a conversation about social media, or into some practical, no-tech activities like personal social network mapping on paper (thank you Cheryl Cooper), anecdote circles (thank you Ron Donaldson), peer assists (thank you Geoff Parcell) and knowledge cafe’s (thank you David Gurteen) – or a trip to the bar (thank you Stella Artois and Samuel Adams). That way, we move from being eating machines with shoes to drinking machines with stories!

I’m sure Roald would have approved.
Even if Miss Trunchbull wouldn’t.

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.

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.

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?

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 finally got around to editing and posting a ten minute excerpt on YouTube.

Watch it to discover:

  • How Lessons Learned are like the Higgs Boson particle…
  • 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!

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