Do You Need a Failure Target?

We know that failure is necessary for innovation.  In fact, experience shows that repeated failure usually precedes a major breakthrough.  So then, why do we constantly run from failure when we should be planning for it?  According to Scott Anthony, it’s because the cost of failure is perceived to be so high that we don’t believe we can afford it.  As a result, most of us focus hard on trying to ensure complete success even though we know that in most cases this is impossible without some preliminary failures.  Unfortunately, when you’re caught in the bind of trying to avoid failure at all costs, all you really manage to avoid is innovation.

If you’re serious about innovation, you should consider an alternative approach:

Make Failure Cheap. Give up the old method of creating do-or-die projects in which you tightly control development, foreclose alternative approaches, roll-out a fully-baked product and then hope it works.  Instead, institute a series of small experiments beginning early in the life of the project and allow the results of those experiments to determine the course of your project.  These experiments are not intended to be earth-shattering, but they are intended to provide a controlled means by which to test a concept or approach before too much has been committed.  In other words, these experiments come fast and cheap.

Make Failure Safe. Create a culture in which failure is not only accepted but welcomed, provided that it leads to learning.  And conduct your experiments in a manner that minimizes the collateral damage of failure.  Taken together, this organizational culture and controlled experimentation constitute a “safe-fail” approach to innovation.

Make Failure A Goal. The idea behind this is not to promote sub-par performance, but rather, to institutionalize an attitude of deliberate, calibrated risk-taking for the sake of learning and innovation.  Since this fundamentally different approach won’t be adopted without endorsement at the highest levels, consider having management set annual Failure Targets.  Scott Anthony suggests including in each employee’s annual review an evaluation of whether they met their Failure Target by achieving deliberate low-risk failures designed to promote innovation.  When employees are rewarded rather than castigated for taking sensible risks, you move closer to creating a culture that truly fosters innovation.

So, how high a Failure Target do you dare to set?


What’s Your KM Priority?

Some law firm knowledge managers gathered recently to consider the ways in which knowledge management actually makes a difference for law firms.  We undertook this exercise as a means of identifying what our KM priorities were and what they should be.  To help focus our discussion, we considered the  following question:

What single thing does your KM department do that has the greatest impact on your firm.

(This question came out of an earlier blog post and discussion on KM priorities using the guideline If you were the only KM person in your firm, what would be your primary mission?) Here is what some of the members of the group said they were doing now:

  1. Being the firm’s institutional memory
  2. Breaking down information silos
  3. Facilitating information retrieval
  4. Maintaining the firm’s knowledge bank
  5. Sharing best practices
  6. Expanding adoption of KM systems
  7. Enabling collaboration
  8. Providing business process vision and leadership
  9. Enabling innovation and change

What I found interesting about this list is that the various missions appeared to fall into two categories:  Information Management (items 1-6) and Firm Management (items 7-9).  Further, I left the discussion with the distinct sense that the knowledge managers engaged in Firm Management rather than Information Management were generally more optimistic about the impact and future of KM in their firms.

What is your KM priority?  If you could do only one thing for your firm, what would it be?  Does it reflect a focus on Information Management or Firm Management?  Is that focus sensible and durable given what we know about basic KM principles?  And do you think that focus will weather the current economic uncertainties?

Now, taking inspiration from the image of concentric circles above, what mission or project would you add to your portfolio if you could hire one more person?  What would they do?  And, what if you could hire yet another?  What would they do?  By building out incrementally in this fashion, you should end up with a more considered, coherent and powerful approach to KM in your firm.  Start with what you’ve identified as the number one KM priority for your firm and then expand as circumstances warrant and resources permit.

The key to this approach is have at the core of your KM program a project or mission that delivers maximum positive long-term impact to the firm.  And then, to have the discipline not to dilute that impact by cluttering your KM program with projects and personnel that fail to deliver the same or greater impact.

[Photo Credit:  fangleman]


Are These Social Media Relationships Real?

He and I have never met.  And yet, he sent me the following message on Twitter a few days ago:

You are very quiet at the moment. Is all well? (Or maybe you are away.) See you soon (virtually speaking), I hope.

This message was prompted by the fact that I hadn’t published a blog post or tweeted on Twitter since March 13.  His was the first of several messages I received recently from folks I’ve only ever “met” via this blog or on Twitter.  They suspected something was up, and took the time to check.  As those messages accumulated,  I began to wonder if all of us were underestimating the strength of the human connections that are created and then flourish virtually via social media tools.

If you listen to the social media skeptics, you’d find it hard to believe that people who haven’t met physically (but interact only virtually) could possibly have a “real” relationship.  Even social media proponents have on occasion suggested that the true value of social media tools is that the virtual interactions they enable pave the way for old-fashioned, face to face interactions.   Given my recent experience, however, I’m beginning to question if that’s right.  Granted, I’m working primarily from my own experience and some anecdotal evidence from friends, yet this (admittedly unscientific) sample suggests that many of us are finding that some of our more meaningful social relationships are virtual.  And, that’s not necessarily something to be pitied.

No matter where you stand on the subject of social media, it would be wise to think objectively about the nature of the relationships you have. How do you determine if any relationship is “real”?  For me, it’s more than a matter of physical proximity.  Instead, I’d suggest evaluating the “reality” of your relationships on the basis of some or all of the following questions:  Like the inhabitants of the Cheers Bar, do these folks  “know your name“? Are they in regular conversation with you?  Do they offer information or questions that help you learn and grow? Are they supportive? Do they notice when you’re not participating?  And, when you are not around, do they check on your well-being?   If you can answer yes to these questions, does it truly matter if they live in your town or on the other side of the world?

Ray Oldenburg suggested 20 years ago that most of us need three places in our lives:  the first place is our home; the second place is our workplace; and the Third Place is where we engage with the wider community.  For some, this Third Place is their place of worship, their social club, the barber shop or their equivalent of the Cheers Bar.  For increasing numbers of us, that Third Place in an online community that interacts via social media tools.

When I received the various messages inquiring about my well-being during the last few weeks, I had to re-evaluate my own perceptions of online relationships.   What I’ve discovered is that my social media Third Place is increasingly important to me and the relationships I’ve formed online are just as “real” as some of the relationships I’ve formed the old-fashioned, face to face way.  So this blog post is my note of thanks to those of you who have checked in with me lately.   You are much appreciated.

[Photo Credit:  Rob Dunfey]


A Clean Sheet of Paper

The Harvard Business School recently held an executive education session on the global economic crisis.  Amid all the depressing news and analysis came the advice of Professor Robert Steven Kaplan regarding three practical steps business leaders can take now to move things forward in a positive direction:

Overcommunicate – Be visible, be vocal.  Remind all your colleagues what’s great about your organization and help them understand how they can help the organization.

Do the “Clean Sheet of Paper” Exercise – Starting with a blank piece of paper, ask yourself:  “How you would redesign the business if you were starting from scratch?”

Stay Calm – the leader sets the tone at the top and must model constructive behavior.  A leader who is freaked out or entirely focused on finger-pointing cannot effectively lead an organization through this crisis.  You can do better, and your organization deserves better.

While all of this is great advice at any time in the life of an organization, the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise seems particularly compelling given the carnage around us.  When things are going well, it’s hard to step off the hamster wheel long enough to imagine a different approach.  And, you hate to mess with anything that seems to be working.  Under current circumstances, however, nearly every organization has to think hard about what it could do to improve its situation.

If you’re going to tackle the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise, I’d highly recommend that you adopt some of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry.  Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths.  Ask yourself, what are we doing right?  How can we do more of that?  How can we do it better?  Then, look at your mission.  Is it the right mission for your organization?  Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths?  Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission?  Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new.  The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

[Photo credit:  liquidx]


10 Things I’ve Learned

Andrew McAfee’s Twitter list of “10 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching” is instructive for those of us who don’t teach for a living:

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence in the classroom.
  2. Ask clear questions.
  3. Trust your students.
  4. Be the person who most wants to be in the room.
  5. Start on time, end on time.
  6. Check your fly.
  7. Be more concerned with the destination than the journey.  (But see comments by @sengseng and @markgould13, with last word to @sengseng.)
  8. We get smarter via respectful disputation.
  9. It’s better to be well-rested than well-prepared.
  10. Most students appreciate being held to high standards.

This, of course, led me to muse about how these 10 Things apply to law firm knowledge management:

  1. Silence is Golden — lawyers are trained to spot issues (which is a nice way of saying that we can find fault with nearly anything).  If you aren’t  getting feedback, either they think you’re doing a fine job or they don’t know you exist.  Depending on the day, either may be perfectly acceptable.
  2. Be Clear — clarity of purpose and clarity of expectations go a long way to success.  Be sure you’re clear about what your KM program is supposed to deliver and be clear about what you’re able to do.  Further, be clear about what you need from the firm and its lawyers to be successful.  They can’t help you if you don’t ask — clearly.
  3. Trust — at the end of the day, law firm knowledge management exists to improve lawyer work and, ultimately, client service.  Trust the lawyers in the firm to know what they need and be sure to talk to them frequently about those needs.  Don’t assume they don’t know and don’t make the mistake of believing that you always know better.  Sometime you do (because you often have a wider institutional view), but don’t let that lead you into the trap of disdaining the lawyers you’re there to help.
  4. Your Enthusiasm Matters — if you aren’t the one who believes most in your KM program, it will be very hard to sell it to firm management or your users.
  5. Make a Commitment to Time — Although it is perhaps most challenging when you’re rolling out technology, set project deadlines in consultation with your users and then meet those deadlines.  Your commitment to time indicates your commitment to your KM program and to the firm.  This is particularly important when you realize that the lawyers in your firm are constantly working to meet the time commitments they’ve made to their clients.  When we let our internal deadlines slip, we give the impression that we aren’t supporting the client-facing work.
  6. Presentation Makes a Difference — as young lawyers we were reminded that typos tarnish an otherwise brilliant memo.  Since so many lawyers have OCD tendencies, this warning pushed us deeper into our neuroses.  Even if you take a more moderate approach, the reality is that sloppy presentation of your work undermines that work.  If you want to be taken seriously, be sure that the appearance of your work does credit to the work itself.  And, don’t forget to check your fly.
  7. Focus on Your Goals — If you want to have something to show for your time and effort, you need goals to work towards.  That said, I part company with Andy McAfee slightly on this since I believe that the journey is every bit as important as the destination.  How you reach your goal can have as big an impact as reaching the goal itself.
  8. Leverage the Talents of Your Colleagues — when you insist on tightly controlling how things are done or implementing your ideas without the benefit of input from your colleagues, you deprive your project of the creative talents of your team.  In addition, you deprive the firm of the value these employees bring to the table.  If you understand that much of what we do in KM is iterative, you’ll understand how essential it is to have colleagues who are willing to bring (and defend) a different perspective on your shared work.  Their contributions will help you improve your work product, provided you are open to little “respectful disputation.”
  9. Exhaustion is Not Conducive to Insight — since I have a woeful tendency to burn the candle at both ends AND have learned that there’s no substitution for good preparation in legal work, Andy McAfee’s suggestion that “it’s better to be well-rested than well-prepared” is a little challenging for me.  However, I do understand that when you’re exhausted or under stress, it’s very hard to glimpse those moments of insight that lead to breakthroughs.  Given current economic conditions and the stresses and strains they engender, it now is more important than ever before to remain rested enough to be innovative.
  10. High Standards are Your Insurance Policy — In carrying out our work, we need to ask if this is the best we can offer to the firm and to its clients.  In aiming high, we push ourselves and our colleagues into the mode of constantly seeking improvement.  That is a key to creativity and innovation.

Meanwhile, Mark Gould has posted a great list of his KM-related glosses on Andy McAfee’s list that is well worth a read.

What would you add to these lists?

[Photo Credit for “Einstein’s Blackboard”: rich_w]


What’s My Line?

When I was a child we occasionally were allowed to watch a TV game show called “What’s My Line?”  The object of the game was for the panelists to guess the occupation of the contestant by asking a series of  Yes/No questions.  Wikipedia’s summary of the game includes the following observations:

The panel usually adopted some basic binary search strategies, often beginning with several common broad questions, such as whether the contestant dealt in a product or service …, whether the contestant worked for a profit-making or non-profit organization, and whether a contestant’s product was alive (in the animal sense), worn, or ingested. Because “no” answers were to be avoided, panelists would often phrase their questions in the negative so that a “yes” answer would be more probable, starting questions with “Is it something other than…” or “Can I rule out…”

This trip down memory lane caused me to wonder how on earth a law firm knowledge manager would fare if seated in the hot seat during What’s My Line?  You can just imagine the questions, as well as the consternation our answers might elicit. So let’s turn this around slightly.  What exactly IS it that we do for a living?

  • Create an environment that fosters knowledge sharing.
  • Assist our colleagues to find the people and information they need to know.
  • Train the lawyers in our firm to practice effective personal knowledge management.

That’s how I’d sum up my job today; it’s my “elevator speech.”  What’s your line?

If you have a little time, here is some video of Salvador Dali and A friend of Donald Duck on What’s My Line.  Enjoy!

[Photo Credit:  Dunechaser]


Rethink Your Routine

In Tom Davenport’s terrific post, Microdecisions for Macro Impact, he reminds us that fortunes can be won and lost in the little decisions we make every day. As he astutely notes,

What many companies don’t realize is that microdecisions — small decisions made many times by many workers at the customer interface — can have a major impact on the business. How they are made can be the difference between sloppy and effective execution, and between profit and loss.

Equally, small decisions made in the course of routine procedures can have a profound effect.  If you’re not sure about this, think about the huge beneficial change in health care derived from the simple act of hand washing.  Or, imagine what would happen if your pilot decided to “wing it” and disregarded the standard take-off checklist?

In knowledge management, we regularly spend time thinking about work flow and business process.  And, especially when we’re considering bringing technology into that flow, we have an opportunity to ask whether the individual steps within a process are sensible given current circumstances.  Do they yield the best possible outcome on a predictable basis?

The fact that something is routine does not mean it is optimized.  As you go through your day, take a closer look at the many repeatable acts you perform and consider whether there are small decisions you could make differently to yield much better results.

[Photo Credit:  Wisconsin Historical Society]


Eat Your Vegetables!

The historic battles between Athens and Sparta or between the Hatfields and the McCoys are nothing compared to the battle royal fought daily by parents determined to make their children eat their vegetables. After years of alternating between cajoling and threatening our children, we now learn that the right thing to do is to try some rebranding. According to a recent Cornell University study, “giving vegetables catchy new names – like X-Ray Vision Carrots and Tomato Bursts – left preschoolers asking for more.”  In fact, when plain carrots were rebranded as “X-Ray Vision” carrots, the children ate twice as many carrots.  And, they continued to eat 50% more carrots on subsequent days when they were served ordinary carrots.

Before you enjoy a chuckle at the expense of gullible children, take a look at the following finding from the same researchers:

Similar results have been found with adults. A restaurant study showed that when the Seafood Filet was changed to “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet,” sales increased by 28% and taste rating increased by 12%. “Same food, but different expectations, and a different experience.”

So what does this have to do with law firm knowledge management?  Well, do you have KM initiatives that seem dead in the water?  Are you trying to get the lawyers to eat their carrots and draft some model documents?  Good luck!  Perhaps you should consider a little rebranding.  Should those dull drafting projects be rebranded as business development opportunities that are critical to the health of the firm?  Or strategic learning opportunities?  Think about what matters to your lawyers and then find your equivalent of X-Ray Vision Carrots.  You might find participation (and consumption) rates soaring.

[Photo Credit, FotoosVanRobin]


The Patron Saint of KM

At the recent LegalTech 2009 conference, nearly every session I attended started with some variant of the words: “Doing more with less.” To be honest, even the session I spoke at spent some time on why a downturn is a good time to invest in social media tools. (Hint: Social media tools help you do more with less.)

In retrospect, we were all working from a glass-half-empty perspective.  Given the tenor of the times, that is perfectly understandable.  Nonetheless, I was very glad to be reminded today by Andrea Meyer that working from a glass-half-full perspective can be much more productive.  In her post, Dr. Seuss:  Innovating within Constraints, she tells the story of how Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was asked to create a reading primer that was more compelling than the bland fare then available to children in the early 1950s.   The catch was that he was limited to a vocabulary of just over 200 common words that were well within the abilities of beginning readers.  Instead of railing against the constraint, he reveled in it.  The result was  The Cat in the Hat — and a revolution in children’s literature.

In this era of shrinking budgets and staff, law firm knowledge management is facing some real constraints.  Creating something useful (and even innovative) is a great challenge — especially given the nearly overwhelming temptation to retrench or retreat.  Yet, how you approach the constraints you face can have a great impact on what you can accomplish.  As Andrea Meyer points out, one great benefit of a constraint is that it helps limit choices and frees you from distraction.  She suggests working within your constraints by stripping a problem down to its basic elements and then putting those elements together in new and unusual combinations until you come upon a creative solution.

March 2 was the anniversary of Theodore Geisel’s birth.  In honor of the occasion, I’d propose that we name him the Patron Saint of Recessionary KM and then take another look at our situation to see if we can follow his example by exploiting our constraints  to innovate with verve.

[Photo Credit, Diane Cordell]


Would Your KM Department Survive Pledge Week?

Our local public radio station has just finished its first pledge drive of the year. During pledge week, they ask all their listeners to provide financial support to the radio station. Since the radio station does not receive government support, they rely on their listeners to cover a significant part of the operating budget. It’s an interesting request — they are asking us to make voluntary payments for a service we receive free daily over the airwaves.

What would happen if you had to ask the lawyers in your law firm to make voluntary financial contributions to support the operating budget of your knowledge management department? What arguments would you make? How much value does your department add to the client services of your firm? How much money do you think you could raise from a group that is used to receiving your services for free?

We give to WNYC because we value the service it provides.  Do the lawyers in your firm feel the same way about your knowledge management services?

[Photo Credit:  Wrote]