KM is Alchemy

In ancient times alchemists sought to turn base metals into gold, create the elixir of life, and discover the philosopher’s stone.  While they may not have achieved these lofty goals, they did lay the foundation for the modern science of inorganic chemistry.

Alchemy is about the art of transformation.  So is knowledge management.  We help transform disconnected individuals into vital, productive networks.  By providing processes and tools that facilitate communication, cooperation and collaboration, we help members of those communities unleash their creativity.  So KM is the means, not the end.  Our goal is transformation and therein lies true gold.

[Photo Credit:  JasonUnbound, Creative Commons license]


Painting Numbers

I met Lorenzo Lotto at the Villa Borghese recently. As I heard his sad tale, I found myself thinking about contemporaries of mine who are headed down his path.

In case you don’t remember Mr. Lotto, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of his story. Born in Renaissance Venice, he became known in some circles as an exceptionally gifted painter. Some say that Lotto could have risen to the highest ranks of Italian artists but for one fatal flaw: he lacked the skills and disposition necessary to win commissions.  Unlike his more successful competitors, he had difficulty cultivating and keeping patrons. Consequently, he was unable to make a living creating the great art promised by his talent. In fact, at the low point of his career he was reduced to painting numbers on hospital beds in order to make ends meet.

Some deride people skills as soft touchy-feely tricks that have no place in the rough and tumble of the business world. While you are entitled to your opinion, consider the fact that as long as we have to deal with humans at work, the person with superior people skills will always have an advantage. Even if you are an “lone ranger” when it comes to your work, consider the many times you need the assistance or support of others. Recruiting others and keeping them on side requires people skills and good management. These are tough to master — there’s nothing soft about them.

Of course, you can ignore this and continue in splendid isolation. Just be sure you don’t mind spending your time painting numbers on beds.

[Photo Credit:  Self-Portrait by Lorenzo Lotto]


Fostering Communication

What will you do in 2009 to foster communication in your law firm?

In some ways, law firm knowledge management has not moved beyond the telephone operators you can see to the left in this 1952 picture from the Seattle Municipal Archives.  Granted, our modern tools are more expensive, but at the end of the day they are intended to connect our users and give them a means by which to transmit information.  It isn’t really much more complicated than that.

So which of your 2009 KM projects will meet the goal of connecting users and facilitating the timely transmission of information within a social network?  All of them, I hope.  If not, we need to talk.

[Photo Credit:  Seattle Municipal Archives, Creative Commons license]


Understanding Your Success

The path from success to bankruptcy is becoming distressingly familiar to increasing numbers of companies.  While most knowledge management departments won’t face bankruptcy, they can learn useful lessons from venerable institutions like the Waterford Wedgwood company, which was placed under administration (i.e., filed for bankruptcy) last week.  The company was founded by Josiah Wedgwood, a self-made man who became one of the most famous purveyors of English pottery.  He is credited with creating an iconic style of pottery and for pioneering many of the sales techniques still directed at unsuspecting modern consumers (e.g., direct mail, money-back guarantees, traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogs).

Today, Wedgwood’s company is in bankruptcy.  What happened?  Judith Flanders believes that his successors lacked his marketing skills and natural flair for business.  Worse still, they appear to have forgotten one of his fundamental methods of improving his company’s performance.  Judith Flanders illustrates this method by telling the story of how Wedgwood reacted to the rise in popularity of his creamware after Queen Charlotte ordered a tea set:

In a letter to his business partner, he marveled at `how rapidly the use of it has spread’ and “how universally it is liked,’ and tried to balance how much this had to do with its royal `introduction” versus `its utility and beauty.’ That is the true Wedgwood. It wasn’t pleasure at past achievement, but instead determination to understand why success had come about, so he could build on it.

His method of identifying what works and then figuring out how to do more of that and do it more powerfully is a critical part of the Appreciative Inquiry approach to planning and growth.  If only his successors had been as focused on understanding and exploiting what made the Wedgwood company such a success, they might not be dealing with England’s bankruptcy laws now.

In fairness, those modern Wedgwood managers are probably not unlike the rest of us.  In a prior post, What Went Right, I noted

We’ve had years of training to think critically about our work and the work of others. We can spot a problem a mile away. It’s much harder to think as carefully about what went right. It wasn’t all just luck or good timing. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients of your past success, you’re in a much better position to deploy those elements to create a new success.

There’s a useful lesson in this for all of us.  Our success isn’t something to be placed on the wall and admired.  We need to examine it, shake it, take it apart and put it back together again until we really understand how it came about.  It is only with this knowledge that we can build on our strengths to reach the next pinnacle.  The alternative is simply to rest on our laurels and assume that what worked before will work again without further analysis or effort.  However, therein lies the path to declining relevance and fewer customers.  Worst of all, it represents a squandering of gifts.  Josiah Wedgwood would not approve.

[Photo credit: Trinity, Creative Commons license]


No Irreparable Harm

One of the tricks to moving past the paralysis of choice is to get a better sense of what’s really at stake.  You could focus on how much is to be gained by the contemplated action or — more likely — you worry about how much harm can befall you if the steps you take are ill-advised.  Of course, the more you think about the downside, the more you “catastrophize.”  And the more you catastrophize the more likely you are to remain stuck in indecision.

In the course of my blog move I’ve had ample opportunity to catastrophize.  You would think I was considering neurosurgery rather than merely upgrading a blog.  To be fair, much of the worry came from the fact that I am not a programmer and, therefore, assumed that the whole house of cards would come tumbling down if I didn’t treat the blog coding with great respect.  However, this process of experimentation in public as I slowly upgrade my blog has taught me that it isn’t quite as fragile as I feared.  In fact, this experience has reminded me that very few things in life merit the warning displayed in the picture above.

So what’s the better approach?  When you find yourself imagining the parade of horribles that could result from your proposed action, stop to consider whether that action is likely to inflict irreparable harm.  If the answer is yes, cease and desist until you’ve completed a thorough analysis.  If the answer is no, proceed.  In my case, I’d been obsessing about WordPress themes for days, but seemed incapable of actually making a choice and moving forward.  However, once I took a realistic look at what was at stake and  learned that any choice I made could be undone with little fuss, then I was able to move forward.  As a result, my blog now has a new look.

If we are serious about innovation,  and we understand that our innovation must be timely and cost-effective, then we’ll have to find ways to move past paralysis and catastrophizing towards “safe-fail” methods of learning and growing.  In other words, our bias should be towards action, provided we do no irreparable harm.

[Photo credit:  tankgrrl, Creative Commons license]


The Paralysis of Choice

I’ve been staring at WordPress themes for hours on end and am going cross-eyed.  There are just too many choices.  The problem is that I’ve been laboring under the foolish notion that somewhere out there is the perfect WordPress theme for me.  Dumb!

The reality is that in blogging (as with many* things), all we need is a good enough choice.  The hunt for the perfect choice is just another way of delaying the need to make a commitment.  No matter what you’ve heard, we now know that there is really no guarantee that if you hunt longer you’ll find perfection.  In fact, Barry Schwartz tells us in the Paradox of Choice that most of the time the only reward for the painstaking weighing of too many choices is  — too much stress.

Now think about how we approach knowledge management projects.  If we listen to the siren song of vendors, we all too often choose projects with big budgets and big expectations.  As a result, every decision is fraught because the price of failure is high.  After all, how do you tell the partners in your law firm that you’ve spent thousands of their dollars on a “good enough” (but definitely not perfect, and possibly not great) solution?

Somehow we have to change our mode of operating, moving away from big productions worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, and closer to an indy film created with a camcorder.  When the stakes are lower, we are less likely to succumb to the paralysis of choice.  And then, a solution that is “good enough” suddenly becomes … perfect.

* Just for the record, nothing I’ve written here should be construed to apply to the choice of a significant other — especially if that person is reading this  blog!

[Photo credit:  Gregor Rohrig, Creative Commons License]


The Upside of Failure

In our success driven society, it’s easy to believe received wisdom that there’s nothing worse than failure.  Unfortunately, this consistent message has led to the greatest failure of all — the failure of nerve resulting in a decline of innovation.  However, if you ask  anyone who has launched a truly successful knowledge management initiative how they did it, they will undoubtedly tell you that their great overnight success was preceded by lots of trial and error.  In other words, they risked (and suffered) failure for the sake of innovation.

As I chart my progress through this project of switching domains and blogging platforms, I have to remind myself that it’s only a blog and that there isn’t any real “danger of death by failing.”  In fact, lots of others have walked this path before and have survived to tell the tale.  On the other hand, I also have to remind myself that my natural state of excessive optimism is probably not justified given my woeful lack of IT skills.  (Admittedly, there are lots of folks who would find switching their blog over to be a piece of cake.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.)

So here I am, making a ridiculous number of beginner’s mistakes and yet — something of worth is emerging.  Better still, I’m learning a great deal from exploring this new territory and that new knowledge will continue to pay dividends.

This is the upside of failure.

[Photo credit:  Estherase (and Simon), under a Creative Commons license]


Blinded by the Light

It’s amazing how long a person can agonize about making a change — stumbling around in the dark, trying to find the path forward.  For me, it literally took months.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I tried polling my friends on  Twitter.  The question was simple:  Should I stay or should I go?  Within minutes, the answers came flying back and they were nearly unanimous — Go!

Go where?  To WordPress.  (And you thought I was agonizing over something truly earth shattering, right?  But think about it for a minute.  My question is just a proxy for a lot of tough decisions we face daily.  It’s the process of working through the question that I want to focus on here.)  The reality is that when you’ve made an investment in something, it’s hard to turn your back on your sunk costs and start over again.  In fact, the real question for me was:  Do I stay where I’m comfortable or do I take a risk and move?

As you can see, I’ve moved.  But the thing that tipped the balance for me was identifying the issues that were holding me back:  fear of the unknown and fear of failure.  Once I named them, I literally was blinded by the light.  I’ve been writing for some time about the importance of change and, especially, about the importance of feeling free to fail in order to learn and grow.  In fact, I’m on record for saying that failure is a critical prerequisite of innovation.  So now, having seen the light, I have to put on my sunglasses and walk the walk.

I’m up to my eyebrows in change and just a hair’s breadth away from disaster.  But as I work through this particular set of experiments and changes, I’ll be documenting my lessons as they become clear to me.  After all, as long as we’re learning,  we can’t call the experience a loss.  And, we certainly can’t call it failure.

(Photo Credit:  Little Ricky, Creative Commons License)


The Pleasure of Your Company

The Pleasure of Your Company is requested at the relaunch of the Above and Beyond KM blog on a new domain that has been a long time in gestation:

As you’ll undoubtedly notice quickly enough, I’ve moved but haven’t yet finished unpacking.  So please bear with me as I hang the curtains and shift the furniture around.

Since this move is happening in plain sight, please let me know what you think.  Over the course of the last year, I’ve come to value your input enormously. In the meantime, I hope we’ll be able to continue the conversation we began last year — but now in more gracious (and spacious) surroundings.

I do hope you’ll join me.

(Photo credit:  Steve & Jemma Copley, Creative Commons license)