No More Pretzels!

Let me begin with a health warning: Be careful as you watch the video below. It will give you a sympathy backache. That said, it’s worth watching it to see what a naturally gifted human pretzel can do.

Now think about how you might perform as a human pretzel.  No matter how much physical flexibility you may have, chances are that you cannot come close to the standards that Victoria Jacoby attains in the video.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Chances are that you cannot come close to her ability to contort her body, but I’m willing to bet that you far exceed her accomplishments when it comes to contorting yourself and your technology to accomplish everything you need to do everyday.

A classic case in point is email. Its ubiquity is a testament to its perceived usefulness. However, I’d suggest that we have been pushing its usefulness beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity.

So what are smart and safe uses of email? Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja suggests the following:

  1. Non-urgent communication
  2. Follow-up
  3. Praise
  4. Timeshifting
  5. Filtering
  6. One-t0-many communications
  7. Sending documents/pictures
  8. Mobility

If those are the good uses, what are the bad uses? In 2007 Dave Pollard outlined the bad use cases in When NOT to Use Email:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism
  2.  When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial
  4. When you are sending a few people complicated instructions
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people
  8. To achieve consensus
  9. To explore a subject or idea
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other “FYI” stuff.

For each of these cases, Dave Pollard provides what he considers to be the better way of communicating. (You can find a concise summary of the alternatives in his post, Getting Rid of Email.) In addition, he has created a detailed decision tree you can use to determine what mode of communication is best in each circumstance.

People are fond of saying that “Lawyers live in email.” A more accurate way of describing this is as follows: lawyers spend their days as human pretzels when it comes to email. They contort themselves and their technology, pushing it to do things it was never meant to do.

And then we get mad when things go wrong?

Perhaps it’s time we shifted from the bad use cases to the better use cases for email. Perhaps it’s time we finally outlawed pretzels — of the human and technological kind.

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Working with Special Snowflakes

snowflake-310071_1280We were taught as children that no two snowflakes are alike.  Some of our teachers went so far as to suggest that we were like snowflakes, each possessing unique characteristics, each to be valued in her own right.

Isn’t that lovely.

This kind of affirmation is helpful in the right time and place, but at some point in our education most of us learn that there are a lot of characteristics that humans share. Moving beyond crude stereotypes we discover, for example, a shared fight-or-flight response and nesting impulse. And that’s just the beginning.

There are, however, some people who are rarely pushed to look beyond their particular circumstances to understand how much they share with the rest of humanity. Who am I talking about? Lawyers.  Yes, the work they do is different from the run of the mill. Yes, they do need a special education to undertake this work. Yes, their work can have enormous consequences for others. But the same could be said for doctors, engineers, architects, etc. Yet lawyers persist in believing that they are a breed apart, a group of special snowflakes.

Unfortunately, too many technologists enable this point of view by telling lawyers that tools can and should be adapted to accommodate lawyer preferences. Thus you have technologists larding up standard software such as MS Office with customizations and embellishments meant to placate the special snowflakes in our firms. And then we act surprised when we calculate the cost of implementing new technology or upgrading existing technology. At what point do we say that the system performs reasonably for 80% of the work lawyers do and we should think twice (or thrice) about customizing for the remaining 20%?

As you consider the decisions you make about your law firm technology or knowledge management systems, consider the extent to which you are enabling special snowflake syndrome. Codependency is unhealthy for all involved.

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How to Handle HiPPOs

hippopotamus-40150_1280Never underestimate a hippopotamus. According to Wikipedia, hippos are the third-largest land mammal and close relatives of whales and porpoises. Adult hippos average 3100 pounds and are capable of running at 19 mph. In short, the hippopotamus “is a highly aggressive and unpredictable animal and is ranked among the most dangerous animals in Africa.”

What about the hippos in your law firm? Are they aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous? Obviously, we’re not concerned that there may be hoofed animals practicing law down the hall from you. We are concerned about the corrosive effect the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) can have on your KM project, intranet design, proposal for a new product or service, etc.

What’s so dangerous about the highest paid person?

  • They are senior in rank and often do not have (or will not tolerate) subordinates who question or otherwise push back on them.
  • They are busy and may not have the time to think through all the details before making a decision.
  • They believe that their judgment and seniority equip them to make quick decisions that are sound.
  • They may rely on gut feeling, instinct or personal experience, without checking to see if their experience is the norm or an outlier.

If you find yourself facing HiPPOs in your law firm, here are some strategies that can help you move beyond HiPPOs to better decisions:

  • Data, data, data.  To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you may be entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. So if you want to redirect an ill-advised HiPPO, arm yourself with verifiable data. Better yet, use top-notch data visualization to ensure that their Seeing is Understanding.
  • Clients, clients, clients.  When you are facing a HiPPO, do not rely simply on your own opposing opinion — even if it is well-considered.  Buttress it with information direct from your clients.  No matter how fond a HiPPO may be fond of his own opinion, he will have to face reality if his opinion runs counter to that of one or, preferably, more clients.
  • Educate. Keep your HiPPO informed.  When you leave to the last minute your interaction with your HiPPO, you increase the likelihood that your HiPPO will feel compelled to make a quick decision based on incomplete information.  By contrast, when you educate your HiPPO through-out your process, you help your HiPPO reach a better-informed decision.
  • KYH. Just like each law firm implements “know your client” (KYC) procedures, you need to implement procedures to ensure you know your HiPPO (KYH). Learn your HiPPO’s biases and blindspots. Find ways to augment your HiPPOs understanding of the facts and issues.  Develop the ability to steer your HiPPO towards better decisions.  It all starts with knowing your HiPPO.

Now that you know how to handle HiPPOs, here are some final questions to consider. Are you a HiPPO or are you in danger of becoming one? If so, make sure the rest of your team reads this post! 

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Seeing is Understanding

2014-11-09 19.46.06 What is 9? To some it is a large number, to others insignificant. In some circumstances, it means a great deal. In others, it may be virtually irrelevant.

What do I mean? Consider the following, quite different uses of the number:

  • 9 grains of sand
  • 9 miles
  • 9 lives (relevant primarily for cats, of course)
  • 9 on the Richter scale

Once I provide a little context, then you begin to understand the true meaning of the number.

In our numbers-obsessed world, it is easy to forget that a number is an abstract idea. It rarely is as exact as we would like to believe. Further this abstract nature means that what I understand when I see a particular number may not be exactly what you understand. Our understanding of numbers can be shaped by our own context and experience. For example, a healthy profit for one company may be a rounding error for another. Because of this, we need to go the extra mile to ensure that the numbers we use and the way we present them convey the intended meaning.

This is where data visualization steps in.

I was very fortunate to be in London last November. There I experienced first-hand the power of data visualization done right.  It was on November 9, 2014. I emerged from the Tower Hill tube station into the dark Sunday evening to find hundreds of people silently looking at the floodlit Tower of London. Or, more precisely, looking at the moat around the Tower.  In that moat were 888,246 bright red poppies.  The flow of poppies began at a Tower window, spilled down the outer wall and then filled the moat entirely.

At one level, it was really quite simple: the people were looking at a public art installation conceived by Paul Cummins and Tim Piper entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. The artists created it by planting in the moat one red ceramic poppy for every British or colonial life lost during the First World War. It was an incredible way to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War.

The effect of so many poppies was to create a vibrant river of red (or of blood?) in the moat.  When I saw the magnitude of this river, I experienced almost physically the impact of that much blood and that many lives lost. The number 888,246 was now much less abstract for me. And the experience of that loss of abstraction was unforgettable.

This is the power of effective data visualization. Its impact can be profound.

With the recent hype regarding Big Data, it is easy to forget that the point of collecting and analyzing large quantities of data is to give birth to insight and, ultimately, impact. Even the analysis and presentation of smaller sets of data should be done with the goal of provoking insight and impact.

Whether you are making a report, designing a financial dashboard or creating a public art installation, the way you present your numbers can be either obfuscating or enlightening. It can result in confusion or in greater clarity. Data visualization done right can help you get your core message across in a way that simply typing a number on a page cannot.

Seeing is understanding. Do not underestimate the value and sheer power of data visualization. Thankfully, the creators of the poppies at the Tower of London did not and I, for one, am truly grateful.

[Photo Credit: V. Mary Abraham]

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.com.

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Do the Impossible

Apple_gray_logoToday I had the good fortune to speak with George Blankenship at Fund Forum International 2015. In his long and storied career he has been a key customer experience architect at Gap, Apple, Microsoft and, most recently, Tesla Motors. During his presentations today, he took his audience inside Apple and Tesla to look at the ways of working and, more importantly, the ways of thinking that have made both of these companies such groundbreakers.

Blankenship was recruited from Gap by Steve Jobs to help Apple launch its retail stores. Until that time, Apple products were sold by people who were not Apple employees in places that were not owned or managed by Apple.  Before designing what became the phenomenally successful Apple retail approach, Blankenship went out into the field to observe their potential customer in the wild.  He discovered that most customers came into computer shops knowing that they wanted to buy any computer except an Apple computer.  To their mind, Apple computers were for oddballs, not for regular people. So the first challenge was to help customers actually get to know the real Apple and, along the way, develop an understanding of how an Apple computer might in reality be a good choice for them. To do this, Blankenship and his team decided to “ambush” potential customers in their natural habitat at times when they were not thinking about buying computers.  This meant creating stores in malls that might catch their attention as they walked by on their intended errand to another store.

As they came to know their potential customers, Apple came to understand better than the customer what would delight the customer. As a result, they were able to create products and services that customers did not even know they wanted.

How did they create this want? According to Blankenship, it was because of Apple’s strict fidelity to four key principles:

  • innovation
  • design
  • simplicity
  • the ownership experience

Having designed great products, the next challenge was to actually reach the customer.  For Blankenship, reaching the retail customer is easy if you do four things:

  • design great space
  • hire great people
  • treat them well
  • turn them loose on the public

Even if you do not aspire to overturn Apple’s dominant position in retail, you can learn lessons from Apple about how it rigorously develops its products and services, cultivates its staff and delights its customers.  You can also learn from Apple’s incredible focus and resolve. In Blankenship’s words, “Don’t let anyone get in your way when you know that the thing you are doing is the right thing to do.”

Blankenship left us with the following challenge:  “Things always seem impossible…until someone does it.”  Apple has redefined the retail experience, the mobile experience, the music experience, the babysitting experience.  Someday someone will redefine the funds industry or the legal industry. Will that someone be Apple or you?

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Making Better Choices

scales-36417_1280What do Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven and you have in common besides talent and intellect? The 24-hour day. Each day we make choices about how we will spend our time. And those choices determine our output and impact.

Here is the underlying truth. We all operate within constraints — whether it is the 24-hour day or the limitations of a budget. So the challenge is how to make better choices that yield better results.

This issue of making better choices is critical in law firm knowledge management (“KM”). I have yet to meet a KM professional in any industry who says that they have all the resources necessary to cope with the demand for their work and attention. So if we all are struggling with demand that outstrips resources, what is the sanest way of responding? Make sure you are allocating your time and resources to the projects that deliver the greatest good for the firm.

To be clear, this is not merely philosophical advice. It highly pragmatic and admittedly tough. We don’t always understand what will yield the greatest good for the firm. Because of this, we sometimes let our work priorities get skewed by the person who is most senior, most influential or, sometimes, most annoyingly persistent.

It was to address this challenge that I earlier asked law firm KM professionals whether they themselves were force multipliers and whether the work of their teams had a force multiplier effect on their firms. In the same vein, I am now asking law firm KM professionals if they are allocating their resources to the most impactful projects. The definition of what constitutes an impactful project varies with each firm and its strategy. Nonetheless, regardless of the strategy, each KM department must align its resource allocation and effort to that strategy.

You have to tackle the task of prioritizing and then re-prioritizing regularly. Situations change, expectations change, and then suddenly you have new pressing priorities. It is for this reason that I use the concept of a portfolio of KM projects that, like an investment portfolio, should be rebalanced from time to time to reflect changes in priorities and circumstances.

The key to any successful portfolio is to make sure that you have the right mix of investments and that you are not over-invested in a category that does not yield the desired results. To achieve this, you must understand your strategic goals, the range of available investments, and how particular investments serve those strategic goals. You also need to be disciplined to cut back on investments that demand too much of your resources or do not deliver as planned. This is how we rebalance our personal investment portfolios and it is the same principle that applies to your KM investment portfolio.

The white paper, Rebalancing your knowledge management portfolio,  takes a closer look at what a properly balanced KM portfolio might look like. It also discusses the real challenge of managing a big project, like an intranet project, which can demand a disproportionate amount of your resources if you lose sight of your strategic goals and fail to put the project in its proper place. No matter what your intranet choices are, the key is to make sure that those choices support your efforts to reach your strategic goals with the resources at hand.

Whether you are working within the constraints of a 24-hour day or over-stretched resources, the key is to keep making better choices.

[Photo Credit: Nemo]

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Your Innovation Angle

Bent Pyramid EGRWThere are the facts about an event. And then there are the stories we tell about an event. Sometimes the facts and the stories do not match entirely, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from both the facts and the stories if we are willing to pay attention.

The facts I have in mind relate to the building of some pyramids for Pharaoh Sneferu. It was during his reign that Egyptian engineers made the giant leap from a stepped pyramid to a smooth-sided pyramid. Thanks to their work, Sneferu’s son, Pharaoh Khufu was able to build several smooth-sided pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The facts are interesting enough, but the story I was told in Egypt about Sneferu’s building effort is much more interesting if innovation is your focus:

Pharaoh Sneferu and his engineers had an audacious goal: they wanted to build the first smooth-sided pyramid and they wanted to make it larger than any pyramid built before. One key to increasing the size of the pyramid was the angle at which the sides rose from the base. So the engineers began to build the pyramid using a 54-degree angle. Part way up, they made some disquieting discoveries:

  • the base of the pyramid was built on unstable ground and could not support the heavy structure,
  • a larger pyramid required larger stones, which were cut in such a way that their weight pushed down towards the center of the pyramid, potentially causing the pyramid to collapse in on itself, and
  • without the stable base and the larger stones, they could not build a pyramid at the desired 54-degree angle.

The physics of the project kept Sneferu’s engineers from achieving the vision. Rather than tearing down what they had built and then starting over again, they simply adjusted the angle of the sides, reducing it from the original 54 degrees to 43 degrees. In addition, they changed the way they cut and lay the stones, thus relieving some of the pressure on the structure.

These adjustments allowed them to build a smaller but stable pyramid. However, the resulting structure looked nothing like the intended design. Instead, the sides of the pyramid were bent to reflect the change in angle. For this reason, the pyramid is known as the Bent Pyramid.

Now here is where the story takes a really interesting turn. The Pharaoh had commissioned the largest and smoothest pyramid in the history of the world. What he got instead fell far short of that goal. Building a pyramid was typically a 10 to 20-year project, so he had what appeared to be a very expensive and time-consuming failure. Under these circumstances, firing the engineers or even executing them might be perfectly understandable.

Sneferu, however, did neither of these two expected things. Because he was inspired by the vision and convinced by the theory regarding the building angle, he gave his engineers another chance to achieve the vision. These highly innovative engineers next did something that smart innovators do: they examined their prior attempt, identified their errors and then modified their design to incorporate the lessons learned from the bent pyramid. The result was the Red Pyramid: the world’s first smooth-sided pyramid and, at that time, the world’s largest pyramid. How did they accomplish this? They built it at an angle of 43 degrees from its base.

A few years later, Sneferu’s son, Pharaoh Khufu, built the Great Pyramid of Giza that still stands today as a testament to the brilliant engineers of ancient Egypt. Its angle is 51.5 degrees.

Innovation Lessons

For innovators there are several powerful lessons in this story:

  • To improve your chances of success, do not make the mistake of innovating in a haphazard manner. The better approach is to innovate by using a series of disciplined experiments that are thoughtfully designed and carefully executed.
  • While others may judge an experiment a success or failure based solely on its outcome, innovators need to take a different approach. An experiment that is not examined for lessons learned is a failure — regardless of its actual outcome.
  • As you innovate, collect and share your knowledge. Your insights may form the basis for further innovation by others.
  • Keep your sponsor on side. This means ensuring you both share a clear and compelling vision of the intended results of your innovation effort. And, it means clear communication throughout the project to ensure the sponsor understands when a flaw in method does not necessarily indicate a flawed vision.
  • To the extent you can, choose a sponsor who knows the value of second chance in the hands of an intelligent innovator. What’s the sign of an intelligent innovator? You may not get it right the first time, but you can guarantee that you will not squander the experience.

The person who told me this story claimed that the key lesson was: choose your sponsor with care! As a practical matter, we cannot always choose our sponsors. In fact, I suspect that Sneferu’s engineers did not have much choice either. That said, we are not static creatures.  Most of us do change and grow as we experience life. When you are engaged in innovation, you have to be open to that change and growth as you learn from your experiments. Just as importantly, you need to help those working with you change and grow at a similar pace — whether they be subordinates or sponsors. It is as you grow together that you develop the resilience to learn from disciplined experiments and then push forward with a better design and stronger execution towards your ultimate goal.

That is Pharaoh Sneferu’s angle on innovation. What is yours?

[Photo Credit: Evangeline Warren]

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.com

 

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Under Attack

cyberattack_080812One of the biggest challenges in knowledge management is how to increase responsible knowledge sharing in the face of heightened security concerns. To be honest, I had heard IT colleagues talking about the growing number of network incursions, but since I had not seen any evidence of these incursions, it all seemed a little abstract.

Today some of our students in Columbia University’s Masters of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy program showed me two cyber attack maps they have been monitoring. Suddenly, I had an almost visceral appreciation of the scope of the problem.

I invite you to spend a few minutes watching each map to get a sense of what is going on. It should give you new empathy for your IT colleagues. It also should give you greater impetus to find responsible ways to share knowledge within your organization. If we are unable to balance healthy knowledge sharing with safe networks, our organizations will effectively be hobbled. That is not a result you want to have happen on your watch.

[Photo Credit: Trend]

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Why Your Firm Does Not Innovate

barrier roadsign-30907_640What is holding your law firm back?

You hear about exciting things happening in other industries. You hear about exciting things happening in other law firms. Meanwhile you and your colleagues are told to keep your heads down and just work harder. Do what is expected. Don’t rock the boat.

Innovation is not on the menu.

What is keeping innovation off your firm’s menu? In 2008 I wrote about Claudia Kotchka, an extraordinary business executive who helped lead the revitalization of Procter & Gamble. She did it by using design principles to understand better how P&G’s customers lived their lives and how P&G’s products could make those lives better. In my earlier post, Why KM Needs Good Design, I borrowed from Kotchka’s work to suggest ways in which law firm knowledge management professionals could use design thinking to improve their products and services.

Clearly my focus was too circumscribed. In fact, not just KM departments, but also the businesses that house them can benefit from this approach to innovation. None of this is news. So why don’t more firms try it?

In Kotchka’s view, there are three major barriers to innovation:

  • Complacency. Success makes a company very resistant to trying new things;

  • Risk-aversion. Many big companies have what Roger Martin calls a tension between validity and reliability. The punch line is that companies are very reluctant to take any risks that would upset the profit that flows from reliably making a high quality product that lots of people want to buy; and

  • Functional silos. Kotchka observes that when required to work in cross-functional teams, different functions — such as marketing, finance, and manufacturing — look at problems only from their functional perspectives. However, she noticed that when those team members take off their functional hats and take responsibility for solving the business problem — as start-up teams do – the results are much better.

Chances are you will find at least one of these (or, more likely, all three of them) in your law firm. That is why your firm does not innovate.

Which leaves me with one question: what will you do about this?

[Photo Credit: Nemo]

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Operating at Imagination’s Frontier

Killerwhales_jumping“Does my dog know that whales exist?”

When that curious question popped up on yik yak* yesterday, it sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole: Whales are beyond the experience of most dogs and, therefore, presumably can’t be imagined by most dogs. This, in turn, led me to the following question: How much more is beyond our personal experience and possibly beyond our imagination?

As technologists, we often find ourselves in the position of having to do the human equivalent of explaining the existence of whales to disbelieving dogs. Our colleagues understand the material world and they understand the tools they have at hand. However, they may not always be able to appreciate how something new can improve their professional or personal lives. They really need to see it before they can believe it.

Is it any wonder that adoption of new technology is tough and creation of new technology is tougher?

Our role as technologists is to operate at the frontier of imagination, creating out of whole cloth new possibilities and capabilities that simply did not exist before. Our role is also to act as guides and translators for colleagues whose experience and imagination may not extend as far as ours. When we get it wrong, everyone’s lives are diminished. When we get it right, we open the door to even greater possibilities, and push the frontiers of imagination out just a bit further.

* * * * *

*In case you haven’t tripped across yik yak yet, here’s wikipedia’s description of it:

Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app. It is available for iOS and Android and it allows people anonymously to create and view “Yaks” within a 10 mile radius.[1] It differs from other anonymous sharing apps such as PostSecretand Whisper in that it is intended for sharing primarily with those in close proximity to the user, potentially making it more intimate and relevant for people reading the posts.[2] All users have the ability to contribute to the stream by writing, responding, and “voting up” or “voting down” (liking or disliking) yaks.

 

[Photo credit: Wikipedia]

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