What’s Going Right?

4 Faces Buddha Lawyers have many special gifts, but one of the most vexing is the ability to “issue spot.” They are trained to take a proposition in both hands and then turn it upside down and inside out until they have identified all the potential problems.  This is hugely helpful to a client who is trying to weigh the risks and benefits of a proposed business transaction.  However, this tendency can be hugely challenging for IT and knowledge management personnel who are trying to persuade a lawyer to adopt a new tool or a new way of working.

Now don’t get me wrong — some of my best friends are lawyers.  In fact, I’m a lawyer. Even so, I must admit that lawyers can be a little negative from time to time.

But lawyers are not the only ones.  Tony Schwartz has observed that the negativity bias is something that all humans share and it can lead us to wallow in the slough of despond:

Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question “What’s going right?” provides ballast in tough times.

So What’s Going Right?

This can be the best question to ask when you are seeking feedback on new technology or a new law firm knowledge management initiative.  It can change the energy in the room and draw out the truly constructive comments.  Best of all, it encourages the lawyers involved to use their considerable brainpower to focus on opportunities for growth rather than obsessing about potential problems that may (or may not) stop a project dead in its tracks.

Focusing on the positive is not intended to sidestep reality or allow you to bury your head in the sand.  Its purpose is not denial.  Rather, its purpose is to elicit feedback at an early stage — before the tool or resource is so fully baked that it cannot be adjusted.  Asking about what’s going right can help the anxious stop obsessing about the impossible goal of perfection and start focusing on what’s necessary and possible.

If you want to be agile, if you want to innovate, start asking about what’s going right.  You might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.

[Photo Credit: Manuel Bahamondez]



Playing at Work

Never underestimate the vital importance of finding early in life the work that for you is play.  This turns possible underachievers into happy warriors.

This quotation from Sir Ken Robinson’s book, The Element,  is a good reminder for a Friday, as we take stock of the work week that has just past.  Have we spent that week in our “Element”?

For Robinson, the Element is “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.”  When you’re in your Element, you can unleash your talents and passions to produce something that is uniquely yours.  Robinson’s contention is that when you do this, your work will come so naturally to you that it will seem like play.  Further, he believes that it is only when you operate in your Element that you are able to achieve at your highest level.   The power of this approach lies in leveraging your innate strengths.  The challenge of this approach is to identify those strengths and then use them productively.

Managers can reap the rewards of this approach if they successfully identify and use the innate strengths of the members of their team.  This requires a keen focus on individuals rather than job descriptions.  Taking it one step further, understanding where the strengths of the team as a whole lie, and then concentrating on using those strengths more consistently, can help that team operate at an optimal level.  (This is the appreciative inquiry method I’ve discussed in further detail elsewhere.)  An entire team working in the Element would be a thing of beauty.  And, it could be transformative within your organization.

What are you waiting for?

[If you’re interested in learning more about Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education, see his 2006 TED Talk.]

[Photo Credit:  Sukanto Debnath]


Can Thinking Like A Lawyer Be Bad for KM?

Michael Melcher believes that thinking like a lawyer is bad for a lawyer’s career.  He lays out his interesting arguments in a recent piece for the ABA Journal.  Here are the lawyerly attributes that he believes handicap lawyers when thinking about their own careers:

• Analyze rather than explore.
• Focus on flaws and potential problems.
• Look for clear precedent.
• Require solutions of general applicability (“what would work for lawyers”) rather than specific applicability (“what would work for me”).
• Defer action in situations of uncertainty.
• Be skeptical about possibilities.
• Avoid taking risks.

In Michael Melcher’s view, “What works for legal analysis doesn’t work for personal growth. That’s because the processes of attaining career fulfillment and growing as a professional are not all that susceptible to logic.”  Personal growth requires action (to provide experience) and then reflection (to make sense of the data gathered).  Trying to think your way through the unknown is rarely successful if you don’t have sufficient experience or data points to ground your analysis (or fear-mongering) in reality.  The same could be said to be true about planning law firm knowledge management projects.  If you apply these patterns of thinking to the planning process, you could well end up with:

  • An overly restricted range of options because you haven’t allowed yourself to explore and dream before analyzing the issues.
  • Mediocre options because you’ve eliminated potentially good choices prematurely due to your focus on flaws and problems rather than opportunities.
  • Unimaginative choices because you’re unwilling to do something your peer firms haven’t already tried.
  • Safe but boring options because you want to avoid risk and uncertainty.

In short, the result is too little too late.

So how do you quiet your excessively critical thinking?  How do you allow yourself the freedom to dream and be creative?

[I’m indebted to Stephanie Kimbro for bringing this article to my attention.]

[Photo Credit:  Claire Dancer]


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]


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]


Innovation is a Team Sport

A recent New York Times article touted the benefits of collaborating to innovate. Debunking the myth of the lone genius who creates in solitude, the article suggests that the best innovation comes about through collaboration — where many people and perspectives intersect to create and refine ideas. However, it isn’t enough just to put a group of people in a room and ask them to brainstorm. In fact, according to the article, brainstorming is not nearly as productive as we’d like to believe. Instead of asking folks to “solve a problem” or “devise a new strategy” (favorite brainstorming topics), the better path is “systematic inventive thinking” in which the participants are asked to identify products and processes that work, break those down into their components, and then think about how those components can be put to other productive uses.

When I read this description of systematic inventive thinking, I realized that it appeared to share some of the principles of appreciative inquiry, which encourages us to build on our strengths. What a difference from the traditional approach of focusing on what does not work! (In a prior post I talked about the benefits of asking What Went Right rather than What Went Wrong?) Further, when you ask a group to focus on what’s good, you stand a better chance of avoiding some of the negative dynamics that emerge in problem-solving sessions such as refusing to speak up out of fear of failure or a desire to hoard ideas.

Whether you attempt innovation in solitary confinement or through a group process, research has shown that innovation isn’t a flash in the pan. According to Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:

Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company …. Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.

So what would it take to build innovation into the culture of your company? Sawyer believes that even the lone genius is part of a wider web of ideas and people — the people the genius talks to, the people who write the things the genius reads, etc. This suggests that a company that wants a robust innovation culture has to build robust social networks that facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas.

How can knowledge management help? KM knows all about social networks and social media tools. KM knows how to reduce information silos and enable information sharing. KM knows how to foster collaboration. We’ve often said that the whole point of knowledge management is innovation. With this focus on group genius, it’s becoming clearer how the things that knowledge management does well can be deployed to build a vibrant culture of innovation within every company.

[Thanks to Kevin O’Keefe at LexBlog for pointing out this article.]


Love the One You’re With

Two stories this week from senior managers I know made me think again about the responsibilities of managers with respect to their staff. In the first case, the manager was a senior executive in a financial firm. He said he was struggling with what to do with certain members of his staff who “would never meet their career objectives.” The problem was that while he might have fired them in better economic times, secure in the knowledge that they could most likely find work in a less challenging firm, he was equally sure that these folks would not be able to find work easily given current economic conditions. Add to that the fact that his firm has a strong culture that emphasizes the “firm as family” and you have a difficult managerial challenge.

The second story comes from a manager who felt that his staff was stretched, exhausted and needed assistance. However, when he made his request for additional staffing, he was told that his company was in a cost-cutting mode and there could not be any additions to headcount in his department.

What’s a manager to do?

When assessing how well your staff members are performing and whether they are able to operate at their highest and best level, consider your role as manager. Two qualities that set an excellent manager apart from the herd are (i) the ability to understand what talents and abilities each member of staff has and (ii) the ability to provide a framework that allows that staff member to utilize those talents and abilities to the utmost degree to the benefit of the firm. Adherents of the strengths-based approach to staffing and management will tell you that encouraging folks to build on their strengths and successes rather than focusing primarily on their shortfalls inevitably results in higher performance for the group overall.

In the case of the manager with the under performing staff member, consider whether they are not meeting expectations because you’ve set the wrong expectations. In other words, is their under performance because they haven’t been given the opportunity to set goals and work in an area in which they have demonstrated talents and abilities? (E.g., I can practice 8 hours each day with all the determination in the world, but because I don’t have the necessary innate ability, I will never play baseball as well as Derek Jeter. If recruited to the Yankees, I would never “meet my career goals.”) In the case of the second manager with the exhausted staff, consider how much effort your existing staff members must expend to get things done. Are they working in their areas of strength or struggling in areas for which they are ill-equipped. Asking your staff to do things for which they don’t have natural talents or abilities requires them to spend additional time and energy to get up to speed and overcome their own hard-wiring. Sure they can do it, but at what cost? Contrast that with the speed and ease with which people are able to do the things for which they are hard-wired. (E.g., with enough training and perseverance, any educated person should be able to read an actuarial formula — but never as easily as someone who is naturally highly numerate and enjoys that strange language actuaries speak.) With a reasonably diligent staff, they will try hard to get the job done, but it will take longer and be more painful than if they had the necessary talents and abilities. As a result, they will be perpetually over-stretched, unable to complete all the work, and your department as a whole will under perform.

So what’s the take away from all of this? In these hard economic times managers have a greater responsibility to ensure that they are deploying their staff in a way that takes the best possible advantage of the unique talents and skills these folks bring to work. This approach maximizes the probability of high performance and high morale. Don’t waste time thinking about how you could replace these employees. Except in special circumstances, you won’t be allowed to spend the necessary funds to recruit and train someone new — assuming, of course, you’re even allowed to hire.

So, in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

[Here’s a link to hear a recording of the entire song: Love the One You’re With, Crosby, Stills & Nash]


Creating a Great KM Department of One

In my earlier post, Is Your KM Department Serving Fish, I asked what a great knowledge management department staffed by only one person would look like. This is not a purely academic exercise. To begin with, every member of your staff has to be willing to step up as if they are the only ones responsible for the productivity of your department. But beyond this, I wanted to encourage us to think in more organic terms about what we are and what we can be.

Every acorn holds the potential of a giant oak. What sort of acorn are you? What sort of oak tree will you produce?


Best Practice vs Next Practice

Mark Gould’s comment on my previous post (Not Quite) Best Practices pointed me to Derek Wenmoth’s blog post on Best Practice vs Next Practice. Derek makes the interesting observation that while best practice is a snapshot of what we know has worked well in the past, next practice is an attempt to take that prior experience and improve upon it rather than merely replicate it. This notion of next practice fits nicely with the Appreciative Inquiry approach to change. Here’s the money quote from Derek:

Best Practice asks “What is working?”, while Next Practice asks “What could work – more powerfully?”

Best practice has often functioned as a type of insurance policy: if you’ve followed best practices, who can criticize? However, the focus on next practice moves us out of the insurance policy nature of best practice into imagination and innovation. Very dangerous. And yet, so necessary.

Mark says that he might blog on this concept of next practice. I’m looking forward to reading his observations. In the meantime, thank you Mark and Derek for giving us a more nuanced way of thinking about best practices.


What Went Right?

My last post rather morbidly focused on using KM Autopsies as a useful way of figuring out what went wrong with knowledge management projects. Sometimes, however, it’s much more effective to ask “What went right?”

This apparently contrarian advice is rooted in the field of Appreciative Inquiry, which starts from the perspective that it’s ultimately more productive to identify and build on your strengths than to constantly battle your weaknesses. This approach may not sit well with our Puritan forebears, but it can provide valuable insights as we think through new projects and old challenges. By contrast, the Puritans would more likely have championed a problem-solving approach in which you identify a problem, analyze its causes, and then work to ruthlessly stamp them out.

The focus of Appreciative Inquiry is to figure out what we’ve done well in the past and then determine how to do more of it in the future — building from strength to strength. Because the plan for proposed action is grounded in what was successful before, the people involved in executing the plan start with the advantage of working from a position of demonstrated success.

So going back to that knowledge management project we want to evaluate, how would it look through the lens of Appreciative Inquiry? First, we’d need to identify what actually worked — where that project actually succeeded. And then, identify what steps we took or what circumstances were in place to make that success possible. Next, imagine what more could be done and focus on how to repeat those steps or circumstances in order to facilitate another, bigger success. Then, just do it.

The key is that we are simply doing something we’ve done well before, with every expectation of success. That’s very different than taking a chance on implementing untried methods in order to address a perceived problem. However, Appreciative Inquiry is not about sticking to the status quo or mindlessly repeating prior actions. One of Appreciative Inquiry’s key strengths is that the confidence people experience from their demonstrated success gives them the creative energy to think productively about how to expand on that success. This constant raising of the bar allows incremental improvement without causing paralysis from fear of failure.

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. And isn’t that a lot more satisfying than focusing on failure?