Coping with Uncertainty

Freak Out It’s been over three years since the financial crisis of 2008.  Joblessness is high, optimism low.  Just in the last four months alone, the New York area has had epic weather (Hurricane Irene, floods, the Halloween blizzard) and an earthquake. Worst of all, no one knows when the turmoil (natural or economic) will end. Is it any wonder people are stressed?

Dr. James S. Gordon, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, wrote the following sobering words in the Washington Post in 2009:

I have been practicing psychiatry for 40 years, but I’ve never seen this much stress and worry about economic well-being and the future. There is a sense that the ground is no longer solid, that a system we all thought would sustain us no longer works as we were told it would. … In this uncertain time, symptoms of chronic illnesses — hypertension, back pain, diabetes — that were controlled or dormant are erupting. Low-level depression, whose hallmarks are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, is endemic.

Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has an equally direct summary of our current state of affairs:

We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.  …  One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty.

If that’s what’s happening in the general population, what’s happening in the law firm world?  Toby Brown, a wise observer of law firms and the economy recently had an epiphany about the widespread longing for a return to simpler, more certain times:  it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, he believes that the current “level of uncertainty may be here to stay. And it may even expand in the future. …  The bottom line is that rapid change results in uncertainty. And rapid change has become the norm.”

It’s pretty grim stuff.  So what can we do if we can’t get under it, over it or around it?  How do we get through it?  How do we cope with uncertainty? Dr. Gordon has the following recommendations for individuals:

  • Begin a meditation practice.
  • Move your body.
  • Reach out to others.
  • Find someone who will listen and help you take a realistic look at your situation.
  • Let your imagination help you find healing — and new meaning and purpose.
  • Speak and act on your own behalf.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, suggests the following strategies to help organizations cope with uncertainty and find opportunity:

  • Provide certainty of process.
  • Tackle maintenance and repair.
  • Let ideas flow.
  • Mobilize appreciation for key constituencies.
  • Use purpose and values to “think beyond.”

For law firms that may be choking on the thought of spending money in these uncertain times, Toby Brown has the following recommendation:

In our conversation, we wondered with so much uncertainty where should a law firm invest its IT dollars? Our answer: invest in flexible infrastructure. Uncertainty drives the need to be able to adjust quickly to changing environments, driving the need to add and remove functionalities under very short turnarounds.

I’d take Toby’s advice one step further. In these uncertain times organizations should be investing to help make their people as flexible and resilient as possible.  This is what will help organizations respond quickly and appropriately to changes in the environment.  To be clear, in this context resilience does not mean simply reverting to the status quo ante.  The better definition of resilience for these purposes points to growth and progress rather than reversion:

Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances.

While it is unlikely that 2012 will bring more certainty, let’s hope that we can bring more flexibility and resilience to 2012.  Onward and upward!

[Hat tip to Ron Donaldson for reminding me of Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability.]

[Photo Credit: Frau Shizzle]




In Praise of Older Blogs (#ClawBies2011)

Maple Leaves The older I get, the more I appreciate the effort it takes to get the important things done right.  Blogging is no exception.  Lots of blogs (and their bloggers) start out with a bright burst of energy and enthusiasm, only to falter when they come face to face with the realities of regular blogging.  As I have learned, it is very hard to maintain a schedule of regular blogging.  So I  remain impressed by those who do.  Equally impressive are the folks who have been blogging for years, but still find a reason to blog regularly and, more importantly, still find something interesting to say to their readers.

Accordingly, on this occasion of the the nominations for the 2011 ClawBies Awards, I thought I should pay tribute to Canadian bloggers who are relative “old-timers” in terms of their length of service in the blogging field.  Their longevity is a testament to their creativity, mastery of the art, and stick-with-itness:

  • Connie Crosby.  Let me start by nominating “Info Diva” and consultant, Connie Crosby.  Blogging since 2004, Connie consistently provides her readers with the latest information and guidance in the areas of information management, social media and legal libraries.  In addition to her own blog, Connie is a contributor to the phenomenal blog. Active on Twitter and in several professional groups that meet face-to-face, Connie is a blogging leader.
  • Garry J. Wise. The Wise Law Blog casts its net widely, covering legal, political and technology topics.  Garry started the blog in 2005 and has been joined over the years by contributors from his firm and by the occasional guest blogger.  In addition, he and his colleagues provide legal news updates via Wise Law on Twitter. The “140Law” headlines give readers a quick way to track legal developments in their Twitter feed.
  • Allison Wolf.  Blogging since 2006, Allison provides timely and thoughtful advice in The Lawyer Coach Blog.  If you take a moment to read some of her posts, you’ll soon discover that her coaching advice is not limited to the world of lawyers and law firms.  Rather, it has broader application across a variety of workplaces.  In addition to her blog, Allison is a columnist on

There is an old proverb that claims that “old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”  While I know little about the chronological ages of the bloggers nominated here, the quality of their blogging suggests that they have cornered the market on skill.  On behalf of their readers past, present and future, I wish them many more years of continued blogging success.

[Photo Credit: Hugh Bell]


A Modest Proposal to Improve Meetings

Tempus Fugit “Meetings: the credible alternative to work.” That is the wry conclusion emblazoned on a mug that sits on my desk. It’s a useful daily reminder. However, until all of you get a mug like that to remind yourselves about the huge corporate waste represented by bad meetings, I’d like to make the following modest proposal to improve meetings.

It’s not unusual for a formal business meeting to be followed by the informal after-meeting discussion.  It’s often in that discussion that the meeting is evaluated and action steps are refined.  I’d suggest that after every meeting the participants take a minute or two to evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting just ended.  Did it have a clear goal?  Were the participants prepared and able to make a decision?  Did the participants meet the goal of the meeting?  Did the person calling the meeting do an effective job?  Did the person chairing the meeting do an effective job? In other words, was the meeting worth the time invested?

If the answer to any of those questions is no and if those participants earn a negative evaluation three times then they should be discouraged from calling meetings until they’ve done some remedial work to improve their ability to organize and deliver productive meetings.  Perhaps they should even be forbidden from participating in meetings until the remedial work is done since they clearly are not adding value to meetings.

This may strike you as overly harsh. However, consider what’s really at stake.  Bad meetings are a tax on productivity and morale.  Worse still, bad meetings waste time.

Of all the resources you and your organization have, time is the scarcest.  Can you really afford to waste it?

Above and Beyond KM has been named to the ABA Journal’s list of top legal blogs. Please vote for it in the Legal Tech category by clicking the Vote for this Blog picture below to register and vote:

[Photo Credit: Sami]


Taming the KM Menagerie

Bunnies Just when you thought it was safe, I’m here to warn you to look out for the knowledge management menagerie.  What’s in that menagerie? Animals that can upset an otherwise well-designed KM program.  With some thought, we probably could identify enough animals to populate a zoo.  However, since this is a blog post and not a Harry Potter novel, let’s focus on just two: monkeys and bunnies.


Monkeys became an important part of the management scene with the publication by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass of the management classic “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” In that article they explained how little of our workdays are really within our discretion and how easily that limited amount of discretionary time can be eaten up by colleagues who inappropriately delegate to us. In the case of the original article, the presenting issue was subordinates who delegate up.  In the context of knowledge management, however, we also experience colleagues in other departments who delegate to KM tasks they should be doing for themselves.

To understand the problem with monkeys better, here’s an excerpt from Oncken and Wass:

You’re racing down the hall. An employee stops you and says, “We’ve got a problem.” You assume you should get involved but can’t make an on-the-spot decision. You say, “Let me think about it.”

You’ve just allowed a “monkey” to leap from your subordinate’s back to yours. You’re now working for your subordinate. Take on enough monkeys, and you won’t have time to handle your real job: fulfilling your own boss’s mandates and helping peers generate business results.

How do you tame these monkeys? The Harvard Business Review offers the following management tip:

Have you ever delegated a task to a subordinate, and somehow it ends up back on your plate? Beware of this “reverse delegation.” Employees who are unsure how to do something may enlist you in doing it for them. Don’t automatically solve problems or make decisions for hesitant employees. Focus on generating alternative solutions together, making sure the employee maintains responsibility for executing. Don’t fall for it when a subordinate makes statements like, “You’ll do a better job with this.” While flattering, and possibly even true, they are often a way to get you involved when you needn’t be.

In the KM context, these monkeys pop up when colleagues ask you to find for them things that should be easily found by them using your KM systems.  A friend at another law firm described their expensive enterprise search engine as “a great tool that helps KM find things.”  It sounds as if what my friend has really found is a KM monkey. Similarly, when every unsolved problem within your firm suddenly becomes KM’s problem, then you’re probably looking at a barrel full of monkeys. As flattering as it may be to think that KM is at the center of your firm’s universe, chances are that you’ve got lots of half-finished projects and insufficient bandwidth to complete enough of them.  What you really need to do is get rid of some of those KM monkeys. The key is to train your colleagues to help themselves. If the issue is that people are coming to you because they are afraid of failing, you need to work with them to build trust and to create a safe-fail environment that puts failure in the proper context.


Bunnies? Yes, bunnies.  The particular breed that first caught my eye was “plot bunnies,” but they could easily appear in knowledge management. defines a plot bunny as follows:

1. (n.) A tempting idea for a story that hares off into strange territory upon pursuit. Known for breeding rapidly and dividing a writer’s attention to the point of achieving nothing at all.

Example: “I’ve been trying to write a story, but I’ve been cursed by an infestation of plotbunnies.”

A KM bunny is a terrific new idea that comes out of nowhere and entices you away from your carefully developed plan.  The hard part is that KM bunny is extremely appealing and may, in fact, be brilliant.  Nonetheless, it can be a huge distraction that keeps you from getting the necessary done.  On the other hand, that bunny may represent the one thing you should have been doing all along.  And therein lies the ultimate challenge of the KM bunny — should you keep your eyes on the prize and ignore it, or should you allow it to lead you to potentially more fruitful paths?  How do you know?

A friend of mine who used to run Fortune 100 companies once told me, “Don’t let others put their monkeys on your back.”  I would add to his great advice the following admonition: And don’t let yourself get distracted by too many bunnies.  They can fracture your focus, disperse your energy, and still not result in anything tangible.

No matter how cute those monkeys and bunnies appear to be, remember that they can be lethal if not tamed.

[Hat tip to E.G.R. Warren for introducing me to plot bunnies.]

[Photo Credit: Barb Henry]

Above and Beyond KM has been named to the ABA Journal’s list of top legal blogs. Please vote for it in the Legal Tech category by clicking the Vote for this Blog picture below to register and vote:


Your Values Proposition

True Value As the economy forces more belt-tightening on law firms, it’s tempting to make decisions based strictly on metrics — of profitability, productivity, efficiency.  For the record, I’m completely in favor of profitability, productivity and efficiency.  But I firmly believe there is more we should be paying attention to and tracking.  What more?  Our Values Proposition, not just our value proposition.

Value proposition is a basic concept of business. [Note: this is “value” without a final “s.”]  Wikipedia describes value proposition as “a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer of value that will be experienced.” It’s the benefit delivered to the customer (from KM personnel, services and systems, for example), after taking into effect the cost of those personnel, services and systems. Once we know our value proposition, we use it to explain to our internal customers why they should be using our services or to explain to management why they should be funding yet another KM project. Perhaps your KM value proposition is based on the efficiency your systems bring to the practice of law. Perhaps your KM value proposition is derived from costs you demonstrably reduce.

Amber Naslund takes it one step further by reminding us that a value proposition isn’t just a business school exercise or a marketing gimmick:

Delivering something worthwhile is not achieved in a board room with big flip charts and spreadsheets and ideation sessions. It’s not delivered with a slick brochure or well-written copy, or a stack of press hits in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not delivered in key messages or brand attributes, even. It’s delivered in the work that you do with and for your customers, each and every day. The hard stuff, where you roll up your sleeves and show what you’re made of. Solving real problems for real people.

While a value proposition is useful, I’m beginning to think that a values proposition is critical. Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company and author of Practically Radical, used the phrase in a recent HBR blog post to suggest a better way to differentiate yourself from the competition:

There is a temptation, amidst the turmoil, for pundits to conclude that the only sensible response is to make bold bets — new business models that challenge the logic of an industry, products that aim to be `category killers’ and obsolete the competition. But I’ve come to believe that a better way to respond to uncertainty is with small gestures that send big signals about what you care about and stand for. In a world defined by crisis, acts of generosity and reassurance take on outsized importance.

He goes on to describe interactions with service providers who were competent but left the customer dissatisfied because the delivery of services lacked humanity.  He then contrasts that with service providers whose values helped them understand in the critical moment what really matters.  As a result, they provided “not-so-random acts of kindness that humanize companies and offer an uplifting alternative to a demoralizing status quo.”

This raises an interesting question: what’s the values proposition of your department?

  • What’s the quality of your service?
  • Do you love what you are doing? If so, does it show?
  • What’s the tone of your interactions with colleagues and customers?
  • To what extent do kindness and consideration color your actions?
  • What intangibles about your service do your clients value?
  • What intangibles about your department make your colleagues glad to be part of your team?

Bill Taylor quotes Mother Theresa who once told her followers: “We cannot do great things, only small things with great love.”

What do your small everyday actions say about your values?

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[Photo Credit: Jonathan]




Help This Underdog

It was an honor to learn that Above and Beyond KM has been nominated for The 2011 ABA Journal Blawg 100. In this fifth anniversary of their annual contest, the editors of the ABA Journal sought recommendations from readers and then selected the final 100.  Now, the hard part begins.  The ABA Journal would like our readers to vote for the blogs that they believe should win in each category.  Because of past “voting irregularities,” each voter must register before voting. You’re allowed 12 votes, so you can vote several times in each category that interests you. May I request that one of your votes in the Legal Tech category go to this blog? (Just click the icon at the top of the right-hand column of this page or at the bottom of this post to vote.)

One of the challenges of this process is that not every reader will be sufficiently motivated to take the time to vote.  So, if you don’t wish to end up as the blogger with no votes, you have to get down on bended knee and beg your friends and family to visit the ABA Journal site just for you. I’m exceedingly grateful to my friends and family who have done this in the past for me, but I’ve been conscious of the fact that we solo bloggers have a tough battle when we’re in the same category as group blogs.  For example, my good friends the great geeks (3 Geeks and a Law Blog) are also in the Legal Tech category.  If all of us get down on bended knee to beg for the support, then on straight numbers alone I’m out of the running since the great geeks combined have many more friends and family than little ol’ me.  (Thankfully, the ability to vote for more than one blog in a category could level the playing field — you can vote for both of us!)

Rather than prematurely exiting the field, however, I thought it might be helpful to remind myself and my readers of some of the blog posts you’ve told me you’ve enjoyed this year:

As you can see, it’s been an interesting year.  So please excuse this shameless self-promotion. I’d be grateful for your vote if you are so moved.  But regardless, please know that I am always grateful that you read my blog and even comment on it or tweet it from time to time. You definitely make it worth my time.


– Mary


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December’s Race to the Finish Line

Calendar We’ve got one month left until the end of the year, one month to close the books on 2011. If you’re like me, you’ve got more on your To Do list than can possibly be done before year end. How does this happen?  Most likely it’s because that To Do list does not adequately take account of the dip in productivity levels that inevitably occurs around the holiday season. Unless you are channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s really hard to work all the time when others are enjoying a little holiday cheer.  Further, it’s hard to push your colleagues to work at an unremitting pace when they too want to enjoy a little holiday cheer. Finally, how do you get everything done before December 31 when the members of your team have been working hard all year and now are fatigued?

Here are some strategies to help you cope during the year-end push:

  1. Take a hard look at the calendar. In December, you cannot count on having 20 full working days. There are official holidays when people expect to be away from the office. Then there are scheduled vacation days. And, of course, there are the partial days when an otherwise normal working day is interrupted by office parties, school events, last minute shopping and planning for upcoming celebrations. According to a study conducted by i4cp in 2008, 62% of respondents said that productivity dropped in their organizations during the holiday season. In other words, it can be very difficult to find enough days for focused work in December. If you’re being realistic, what will this do to your ability to meet your year-end deadlines?
  2. Take a hard look at your project list. When you set your goals in January, December seemed far away and you probably had a rosy view of how much you would be able to accomplish in 12 months. Now you are down to that final challenging month.  Unless your project has proceeded without a hitch, you are undoubtedly at this point considering whether it is necessary to cut the scope of your project.  As painful as this is, it may be the only way to keep your sanity and your team intact. Professional project managers will tell you that it is extremely challenging to achieve high quality, low cost and short time frames on a project.  In fact, according to the project triangle, you can optimize only two of these goals so you’ll have to decide what’s most important: good, fast or cheap.  In the context of your 2011 project goals, will you have to cut scope or increase costs in order to meet your time commitments?
  3. Take a hard look at your team. If your organization is like so many others, you’ve been trying to do more with less for too long.  In fact, you may be understaffed and overworked.  Add to that the ambient stress of a challenging economic environment and you may well have a team of people who are mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. How do you re-energize them sufficiently to achieve year-end goals? First, if the exhaustion is due to overwork, consider providing some strategically-timed rest and recreation.  After all, even machines need downtime for maintenance. If your team members don’t understand the reason for their work or don’t believe that what they are doing is important, this can result in mental exhaustion.  In this case, you will have to improve your priority setting, as well as your communication about the purpose of your team’s work. People will not work above and beyond the call of duty if they have doubts about their mission. Is their mission for December important enough to inspire and energize them?

It’s a race to the finish. Unless you approach that race tactically, you could end up crippling your team and falling short of your goals. And, to compound the pain, you may miss out on the joy and hopefulness of the season.  Why risk it?

[Photo Credit: Angela Mabray]