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

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

Bunnies? Yes, bunnies.  The particular breed that first caught my eye was “plot bunnies,” but they could easily appear in knowledge management.  Unwords.com 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]

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