Let 2021 Be A Year of Mistakes

We are finally at the end of a consequential year that few of us will forget soon. Now what should we do?

Standing on the precipice of a new year, it is easy to fall back on the usual greeting card good wishes:

  • Out with the old, in with the new: may you be happy the whole year through. Happy New Year!
  • May this year bring new happiness, new goals, new achievements, and a lot of new inspirations on your life. Wishing you a year fully loaded with happiness.
  • Wishing every day of the new year to be filled with success, happiness, and prosperity for you. Happy New Year.

But, given the year we’ve just come through, I think a different approach might be in order. While it would be only natural to wish for a return to “normal,” a return to life pre-Covid-19, that is neither realistic nor wise.

So what is the better approach? Follow Neil Gaiman’s advice:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

We were given a tremendous gift in 2020 to experience a way of working and living that was inconceivable to most of us (and our employers) in 2019. But the transformation is not finished. Now we have to experiment further to find an even better way of working and living. For that, Gaiman’s advice is absolutely right.

As long as we make intelligent mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes, we can ensure that 2022 will be even better than 2021.

To that end, I wish you a fabulous 2021 filled with great mistakes!

[Photo Credit: Annie Spratt]

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Keynote: The Role of Knowledge and Information in Crisis Management #KMWorld

kmworld-social

Speaker: Dave Snowden, Chief Scientific Officer, Cognitive Edge

Session Description: Crisis management has moved from planning to a day-to-day reality. However organizations are ill equipped to manage a situation where we are dealing with unknown unknowables or have to deal with multiple Black Elephants (something that changes everything!) competing for resources and attention. What is the role of knowledge and information in a crisis? How do we gain attention to weak signals where anticipatory actions would reduce downstream risk and increase overall resilience. Shifting from Just-in-time. Just-in-case sounds like a good idea but it is far from simple and in a resource starved environment may simply not be possible. For the last few decades we have based practice in industry and government on an engineering metaphor, focusing on efficiency. This approach is, to quote Lincoln, Inadequate to the stormy present. Are there better approaches that we can adopt by treating the organization and society as a complex ecology? Would such a metaphor shift allow us to do more with less? Last year’s conference ended with a rousing discussion of creating resilience in organizations and society. They discussed transforming and revolutionizing the way we do business as we move into an uncertain future, how we satisfy our clients in an ever-changing technological age, and how, in our complex societies, we provide value, exchange knowledge, innovate, grow and support our world. Our popular, and sometimes controversial, speaker Dave Snowden has again assembled a group of experienced thinkers and doers who are capable of reimagining a future based on uncertainty.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld Connect 2020 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES: [This is a long read but it contains a lot of food for thought.]

Intro

This talk explains how effective knowledge management can be a vital aid in a crisis. Snowden’s approach draws on his earlier work, especially Complex Acts of Knowing. This article was one of the first articles to focus on (1) levels of abstraction and (2) the role of informal networks as “a highly energy-efficient form of knowledge transmission”.

Current Projects

  • He is working on a European Union handbook on how to manage in a crisis. It includes a five-step process for getting out of a crisis and how to use distributed networks and your own employees to do that.
  • They are also working on post-conflict reconciliation. Given the current political climate around the world, they believe this will be necessary to create a stable market.

What’s Wrong with KM? (Part 1)

  • KM’s Core False Assumption: if we just surface the information (by asking them to write down what they know, contribute to a shared repository, generate lessons learned, participate in a community of practice, etc.), then magically knowledge will flow throughout the organization.
  • Knowledge management professionals have been trying this for the last 30 years but it doesn’t work.
  • Why doesn’t it work?
    • They assume information flows automatically between people without thinking first about the nature of the information itself and how it works.
    • They are ignoring the impact of levels of abstraction.

Levels of Abstraction

  • The highest level of abstraction happens when you have a conversation with yourself. There is lots you understand and do not need to specifically explain to yourself because you share your own education and experience. So you can effectively communicate in shorthand. There is little cost of codification. Any notes you write do not require elaboration because you know what they mean.
  • The lowest level of abstraction is triggered when you want everyone to know what you know. The cost of codification becomes infinite becomes you have to provide to everyone the same education and experience. To achieve this, you must communicate your knowledge in the simplest, most concrete and comprehensible way.
  • In any information flow, you must first determine the upper and lower levels of acceptable abstraction.
    • The higher the level of abstraction, the richer the conversation but the fewer the number of people who can participate.
    • The lower the level of abstraction, the thinner the conversation, the greater the cost of codification and maintenance, but the more people who can participate.

Maps and Taxi Drivers

  • The following section relates to work Snowden did with Max Boisot.
  • Snowden and Boisot did some work together based on the work of Michael Polanyi. Snowden extends Polanyi’s observation: “We know more than we can say, and we say more than we can write down.”
    • This contrasts two extremes of knowledge: tacit and explicit. (He doesn’t like these terms and prefers not to use them.)
  • Boisot observed that highly abstract but highly codified knowledge will diffuse to large populations fairly quickly. Examples: a map versus a taxi driver.
  • A map. It contains highly abstract symbols (e.g., symbol for type of church), which he has learned over time and is able to use to navigate easily.
  • A London taxi driver’s “Knowledge.” They have to know all the possible routes by memory, including all major landmarks along each route. The qualifying exam is rigorous and has only a 40% pass rate. People who pass tend to be highly adaptive (and, apparently, highly ethical). Interestingly, their training also enlarges their hippocampus to enable them to hold the additional new spatial mapping. (It takes about 2 years for this enlargement to occur.) This is very low abstraction, very low codification, and very low diffusion.
  • Both types of knowledge are valuable. However, in a competition between a map user and a taxi driver, the taxi driver will win every time. This is because using the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) to plan the route is highly explicit and slow for the map user but intuitive and very quick for the taxi driver. And, if something goes wrong, the taxi driver can adapt to changes in the terrain more efficiently. (Maps fall out of date and they contain assumptions that may not be explicit. Example, the map may show a route but it likely won’t tell you if it is safe at night.)
    • NOTE: Most KM databases are highly abstract and highly codified (like maps) and make assumptions about what other people know. If those assumptions change, then the database is less useful.
  • So when you are thinking about the kind of knowledge you have and how it should be shared and used, first ask if you need a taxi driver or a map. Don’t automatically assume you need a database (i.e., a map).
  • The taxi driver takes time to train but then becomes highly adaptive and resilient. The map user takes no time to train, but is not nearly as adaptive or resilient. Both are useful, but in a crisis you need taxi drivers. However, because you don’t have time to train them in the crisis, you must invest in training them before the crisis begins.

Narrative-based Knowledge

  • Micro-Narrative or Narrative-based knowledge: humans historically have used stories to share knowledge. These stories are not highly planned and polished, they are more spontaneous natural. They are “wild anecdotes rather than tame stories.”
    • These stories surface weak signals, they surface outliers (e.g., people who are thinking differently).
    • These stories are a way of surfacing attitude: attitude to safety is a leading indicator while compliance is a lagging indicator
  • Side note: don’t run a workshop to ask people what they know. Instead, assess how they know things. The best way to do this is by eliciting their stories. The stories that tell you what is really going on are stories of failures not success.
  • The stories people value are the stories of failure. It is these stories that teach us the most.
    • “The brain registers failure faster than success because the avoidance of failure is a more successful strategy than the imitation of success.”

What’s wrong with KM? (Part 2)

  • We have stories, taxi drivers, and maps. And we need all of them in combination and in the right balance. However, most KM programs focus too much on maps (e.g., structured, explicit knowledge). If they do include narrative, it tends to be highly structured narrative, which is almost as bad as maps.

Informal Networks

  • One of the principle components of a modern KM system is the effective management of informal networks.
  • Done right, informal networks sustain the formal systems
  • When he was working at IBM in the Institute of Knowledge Management with Larry Prusak and others, the ratio of formal to informal networks was 1:60 — and that was counting only the people using specific technology.
  • Informal networks are an efficient way of spontaneously determining the level of abstraction necessary for knowledge diffusion without central planning or control.
    • Informal networks are composed of people who have chosen to participate.
    • Over time, they built a community of trust. Because of this trust, they were willing to admit their failures to each other. This ramped up the collective learning of the informal network.
    • NOTE: We share failures only with people we trust
  • When IBM saw the value of the informal networks and tried to formalize them, most of the useful informal network activity moved into an external collaboration environment beyond IBM’s reach.
  • Larry Prusak: If you have $1 to invest in KM, invest 1 cent in information and 99 cents in connecting people.
  • Human connectivity creates trust.
  • Dense connectivity between people enables knowledge to flow at the right level of abstraction for the context.
  • Direct human interaction is a low energy cost solution for knowledge management.

Stimulate Social Networks

  • One useful technique for increasing direct human interaction is to stimulate social networks
    • Allow people to self-assemble into teams.
      • When people are allowed to choose their teammates, they tend to have higher commitment to each other than when they are assigned to teams.
    • Provide guidelines, a set of heuristics or enabling constraints, that improve team potential by ensuring that you work with people you haven’t worked with before (e.g., a new employee, people who do not report to the same manager, someone who has a degree in anthropology or philosophy, etc.)
    • Give them a series of intractable problems to solve and offer an irresistible reward such as a three-month sabbatical
  • If you ran this exercise every six months, then within 18 months you have a widespread network of people who are within two degrees of separation based on having worked together in a trusted environment.
  • This is a much better investment than spending 18 months building a knowledge base or AI-based search system because you have a dense human network that can assimilate new information quickly and diffuse it rapidly at the right level of abstraction at low cost.
  • They have extended this technique to address mental health concerns.
  • They expect a mental health crisis in early 2021 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, triggered by the realization that this situation will not be going away quickly. However, the official systems will not be able to cope with a mental health crisis of this magnitude.
  • In response, they are trying to rapidly build peer-to-peer support networks. For example, they created a series of trios in Scotland composed of a student, their parent, and their teacher. These trios overlap and support each other.
  • Next they created additional trios composed of teachers, social workers, and police.
  • This is called “entanglement around points of coherence”:
    • The coherent points are the formal roles that have access to the formal systems.
    • Then you interconnect them in multiple three-way combinations that create a dense overlapping network that contains a narrative learning system that enables a peer-to-peer flow of micro-narratives and the ability to have conversations.

KM for Decision Support

  • If you create this healthy ecosystem of overlapping networks then good things will happen even when you don’t control it directly.
    • “I don’t know what I know but I know that I will know it when I need to know it.”
  • This addresses the biggest organizational challenge of the “unknown knowns” (i.e., the thing the organization knows but the decision makers don’t know)
  • Informal networks that are tightly connected can feed into the formal systems
  • Distributed Decision Support
    • There are two functions of knowledge management: improve decision making and support innovation.

KM for Innovation

  • Use KM to create the conditions for Innovation
  • Inattentional blindness = when people are asked to focus on one thing and do not see something else that is right in front of them (e.g., the gorilla).
    • This is not something you can train against because we evolved to make decisions quickly based on partial information absorption that privileges our most experience. This is called conceptual blending.
  • Conceptual blending: scan the 4-5% of the available information, which triggers a series of brain and body memories, and then blend those brain and body memories to respond to the situation quickly. (We evolved this way to avoid predators.)
    • [Look! A Tiger! RUN!!!]
    • “We do not see what we do not expect to see.”
    • During conditions of extreme change, this is even more dangerous because you are looking in vain for a world that looks like the world of 2019.
  • Micro-Narrative Approach is one way of addressing both inattentional blindness and conceptual blending
  • EXAMPLE: don’t send out an employee satisfaction survey. In surveys and interviews, people tend to provide the answers the think you want.
  • Instead, present (or ask them to bring) a picture of what it is like to work around here. Then give them a series of triangles on which the can index their own narrative about that picture.
    • For example, one of the triangles will say that in the story, the manager’s behavior was altruistic, assertive or analytical. These are three positive qualities so the respondent will have to balance the three.
    • This pushes the respondent out of autonomic response and into novelty receptive processing (i.e., out of fast thinking into slow thinking), which makes them go deeper.
  • Note: Most consultancy methods are context-free but the world of their clients is context-specific.
  • “We live in the tails of a Pareto distribution not the center of a normal distribution.”

Mass Sense

  • Mass Sense — when an executive needs to make a decision quickly but doesn’t have the necessary information, doesn’t have time to research the issue, and doesn’t know what to do, how to proceed? Present the situation (via an infographic, a video, text, or some combination) and then ask everyone to interpret it using the same triangles. This is commonly known as “wisdom of crowds.”
  • The resulting data can be plotted on a probability map, a “fitness landscape” (Stu Kaufman) that shows the various patterns in the responses. This will show you the range of thinking within a network. You can see where the consensus is and who the outliers are.
    • This is real-time knowledge management for decision support
  • This approach can be used in peace and reconciliation work. Start by presenting a set of data to people who are in conflict with each other and ask them to interpret it. Then go down one level to see where there are points in common (where you can bring them together) and points in conflict (where the differences really exist).
  • This is “knowledge management hitting the road.” It’s not about building processes. It’s creating a dynamic, network-based, highly visualized response.
  • This approach provides the “wisdom of the network” and, crucially, it helps your workforce participate and feel involved in decision support. This is critical for good mental health during a crisis.
    • It enables weak signal detection
    • It also enables exaptation
  • Exaptation is critical for innovation. Exaptation is a concept from evolutionary biology: when something is originally adapted for one function but under conditions of stress exapts to another function. This produces an innovation.
  • The history of human innovation is “radical re-purposing” or exaptation.
  • In a crisis, the single-most important thing you should do is take what you do well and apply it to a novel situation. It is a form of improv.
    • It may not occur naturally so use mass sense making to associate problems with existing knowledge capability at a level of abstraction.
  • Art and music come before language in human evolution. They are also ways by which we become highly resilient as a species. Why? Art and music are abstract, they distance you from reality and allow you to make novel connections. Similarly, the fitness landscape maps allow you to see new connections.
  • This is another example of real-time or organic knowledge management.
    • Don’t try to organize knowledge in anticipation of need.
    • Instead, create the mechanisms by which the knowledge can assemble in context at the moment of need.

Aporetic Technique

  • Aporetic Technique introduces paradox
  • An Aporia is an unresolvable problem. In a crisis, you should create more of these because they force people to think differently. This is a major part of their forthcoming EU handbook.
    • The handbook includes the 5 steps to get out of a crisis
    • What parts of the problem do you hand back to experts
    • What if you have conflicting experts? Use ritual conflict techniques.
    • What if you have multiple hypotheses? Set up parallel testing.
    • How to know if you have covered the necessary hypotheses? Use the mass sense techniques.
  • The key thing in a crisis is to have a set of simple processes that enforce diversity.

Conclusion

  • Knowledge management becomes even more relevant in a crisis:
    • We need narratives, taxi drivers, and maps.
    • “We also need the ability to rapidly connect people and things in novel contexts so that we can create new knowledge on the fly.”
  • “Knowledge is a dynamic act of knowing not a static act of storage.”

Bonus: Responses in Q&A

  • There is a new approach to Strategy: Apex Predator Theory
    • When radical disruption occurs, the old dominant predators rarely survive because they were optimized for the old environment rather than the new one.
    • What matters is having the low energy cost of fast adoption.
      • Example: IBM is replaced by Microsoft, which is replaced by Apple.
    • This is because they failed to recognize early enough the weak signals of approaching radical change
    • When their environment changes rapidly, apex predators have two big challenges/opportunities:
      • the exaptive moment: effective exaptation on the fly (i.e., quickly repurpose what you do)
      • competence-induced failure point: where they fail, not because they are incompetent but because they are too competent as per Clayton Christensen. They have a very narrow window for change at this point.
  • How to increase serendipitous discovery of novelty?
    • Say: if I knew the answer to the problem, I would interpret it like this.
    • Then, ask: Who else is interpreting it this way?
    • This widens your lens and increases the chance of serendipitous discovery — particularly across domains and disciplines.
  • The challenge for KM: “switch your focus from taxonomy to typology.”
    • KM doesn’t get this. They think in terms of taxonomies, which gives you boundary conditions. By contrast, typologies give you multiple perspectives.
    • This new focus enables trans-disciplinary work (which is different from interdisciplinary work).
    • In a highly uncertain world, trans-disciplinary work means survival.
  • KM has gone too far down the technology route. We would do better by increasing human connectivity.
  • Narrative-enhanced doctrine:
    • This work he did at Westpoint and elsewhere.
    • They enriched documents with hot links to stories from a variety of people about what that document meant. These documents/stories were socially generated over time.
    • Then you can search using some or all of the underlying stories to gain different perspectives.
    • “Narrative enhances documents; documents enhance narrative.”
    • The only thing that worked in Iraq was field commanders blogging.
      • People wanted immediate real-time experience not manicured databases.
  • We are past the fad cycle of AI. We are now working with the computer-human interface. KM should be part that conversation but it isn’t right now.
  • Technology helps us scale knowledge. However, we need to rethink the way we use technology otherwise we will reinforce inequalities in the current system. (This is a matter of epistemic injustice.)
  • Snowden: I don’t want to be a Jeremiah, but I don’t believe is the worst pandemic I will see in my lifetime and I’m 66. Covid is God’s gift to humanity, an opportunity for us to get our act sorted out and get ready for the big one.
  • Without technology, we couldn’t scale. But right now, technology is an unbuffered feedback loop. Basic complexity science tells us that an unbuffered feedback loop will always be perverted. We need to introduce human buffering into that feedback loop. That is our challenge.

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Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?

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Diffusion of Innovation: How Change Occurs

The speaker is Professor Bill Henderson is at the Indiana University School of Law. [These are my notes from a private global meeting of large law firm knowledge management personnel.]

The Diffusion of Innovation field was invented by Everett Rogers. He wrote his first book in 1962, examining why farmers were not adopting the latest and best farming techniques. The key was to be able to demonstrate that the new techniques actually yield better corn. Once the farmers saw the evidence of their eyes, they were prepared to consider the new techniques.

The path of innovation is especially challenging in the law firm world. In the Henderson’s view, a lot of lawyers tend to be very literal, very concrete. This means that they will have a hard time talking to innovators, let alone being early adopters. This poses a big problem for any person in a law firm who is trying to innovate (e.g., knowledge management personnel). For Henderson, the key is to find early adopters who are open to change AND are influential enough to attract the positive attention of their colleagues who are later adopters.

In the legal industry, we have the Artisan Guild (ranging from criminal defenders/ solo practitioners to Big Law). They  focus on the Bespoke and Standardized work identified by Richard Susskind. On the opposite end, we have the Low Cost Providers (e.g., legal publishers and eDiscovery vendors). They are focused on Susskind’s Commoditized work. In between is the “green zone” we have lots of opportunity to master Systematized and Productized work: In-House Vertical Integration, New Law (e.g., Axiom), Lean Law (e.g., Seyfarth), TechLaw (KM & Analytics vendors: e.g., kCura, Reccomind, PLC), People Law (e.g., Modria and Legal Force).

Variations Determining the Rate of Adoption

  • Perceived attributes of innovations that influence an individual to adopt change
    • Relative advantage = How improved an innovation is over the previous generation.
    • Compatibility = The level of compatibility that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual’s life.
    • Complexity = If the innovation is perceived as complicated or difficult to use, an individual is unlikely to adopt it.
    • Trialability = How easily an innovation may be experimented. If a user is able to test an innovation, the individual will be more likely to adopt it.
    • Observability = The extent that an innovation is visible to others. An innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks and will in turn create more positive or negative reactions. (Metrics help with this.)
  • Type of innovation Decision
    • Optional
    • Collective
    • Authority (e.g., when clients speak, law firms must listen)
  • Communication Channel (e.g., mass media or interpersonal)
  • Nature of the social system (e.g., its norms)
  • Extent of Change Agents’ Promotion Efforts

 

 

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What Technologists Can Teach Lawyers About Innovation

Agile Conference , Hoofddorp, 18th June 2009 Many law firms find themselves in sobering circumstances. They are facing mounting economic pressures, more discerning clients, and a deep-seated reluctance to change a way of working that has not kept pace with science or technology.

Something has to change.

Unfortunately, change means disrupting all that is known and comfortable. It’s no wonder that people say: “Change is good. You go first.” In fact, the sheer challenge of innovation can be enough to keep the risk-averse from ever trying something new. And, even if they can overcome their natural tendency to cling to the status quo, a lack of knowledge regarding the most productive way to carry out disciplined experiments can mean that their tentative innovation initiative is either stillborn or severely compromised.

Thankfully, lawyers and law firms are not yet beyond hope. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, sometimes the help you need is close at hand. In fact, it may even be right under your nose. The technologists in your firm should have experience with a specific method of disciplined experimentation called Agile, which could provide the guidelines needed to help risk-averse lawyers conduct fruitful innovation experiments regarding how they practice law and how they run their business. To learn more about this, see my post What Technologists Can Teach Lawyers.

Has your firm benefited from this sort of collaboration between technologists and firm management? Have you used Agile to find better ways of meeting client needs and responding to current economic conditions? If so, please let me know. Yours might be the precedent that shines a light on the path for everyone in the legal industry.

[Photo Credit: Tim Difford]

 

 

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Disrupt Yourself

We sometimes joke in our family that the moment  you think you have everything organized and on an even keel — watch out! Something is bound to occur suddenly to upset that equilibrium:

  • a key member of your team decides to relocate to be closer to family
  • a strategic vendor goes out of business
  • the bottom falls out of the economy

In the face of these often uncontrollable events, it can be hard to maintain your equilibrium. To be honest, the key may be to strengthen your resilience so that you can cope with these stresses and prosper.

Whitney Johnson takes all of this one step further. She suggests that it’s important not to let your equilibrium lead to complacency. Her prescription for the complacent is straightforward and slightly unnerving: Disrupt yourself.

What does she mean by this? She borrows from the work of Clayton Christensen when she suggests that a better path to success is to seek out territory in a new market (or the low end of an established market) and use that as a base to disrupt your industry. She also borrows the notion of the S-Curve to explain how we should propel ourselves from one area of mastery to another:

The S-curve mental model makes a compelling case for personal disruption. We may be quite adept at doing the math around our future when things are linear, but neither business nor life is linear, and ultimately what our brain needs, even requires, is the dopamine of the unpredictable. More importantly, as we inhabit an increasingly zig-zag world, the best curve you can throw the competition is your ability to leap from one learning curve to the next.

If you’re prepared to accept the challenge and are willing to disrupt yourself, Whitney Johnson has five suggestions for you:

  1. Assess. Assess where you are vis-a-vis where you want to be. If your current path will get you there with gradual improvement, you should stay on that “sustaining innovation path.” If your path won’t get you to your goal, try going where no one else wants to play (or hasn’t yet thought to play) and look for opportunities there.
  2. Iterate. “Disruption is a discovery-driven process.” We need to iterate, iterate and iterate again until we get the model right. Often the strategy that leads to success is different from the strategy you began with.
  3. Embrace Your Constraints. “Constraints are problems to be solved.” They drive us to rethink how we do things.
  4. Be Impatient. Look for quick wins, small wins that confirm that you are on the right path. However, be aware that you’ll need to be patient as your strategy of disruption unfolds.
  5. Start Today. “Dare to disrupt yourself, your status quo. Be disruptive. Now.”

 

This post has focused on the personal benefits of disruption, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to consider in the context of your law firm or organization the following observation from Clayton Christensen:

Whenever the tension is greatest and the resources are scarcest, we actually are much more open to rethinking the fundamental way we do business.

Legal industry commentators have said that when law firms finally find their backs against the wall, they will be forced to rethink their business model. Some would argue that the time is long overdue for law firms to disrupt themselves. It will be interesting to see which ones accept Whitney Johnson’s challenge.

 

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It’s Time for a Law Firm Hackathon

Yahoo! Hack Day In the world of law firm blogging there is Bruce MacEwen…and then there are the rest of us. Writing as Adam Smith Esq., Bruce has just completed an extraordinary series of posts entitled “Growth is Dead.” In his final installment, The S-Curve, Bruce says that if law firms wish to survive the current economic headwinds, it’s critical that they identify the next S-Curve and jump on it. The problem is that for all the hand-wringing we’ve seen since 2008 (usually accompanied by dire mutterings about the “New Normal”), there don’t appear to be many well-considered, internally coherent proposals for that new S-Curve.

For those of you coming to the conversation late, S-Curves illustrate, among other things, life cycles (of technology, for instance) and the diffusion of innovation. Clayton Christensen showed us in The Innovator’s Dilemma how upstarts can enter an industry with disruptive innovation that creates a new S-Curve and lets them eat the lunch of more established players in their vertical. The challenge for those more established players is to innovate sufficiently so that they don’t become footnotes in history.

If only innovation were that easy.

In reality, innovation can be extremely hard work. To begin with, organizations are too often rather hostile towards innovation. Further, individuals within those organizations sometimes lack the right mindset for change. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Why Innovation Fails.)

So how do you work around these problems in order to find the disruptive innovation that is right for your organization? As far as the legal industry is concerned, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned. We need answers fast. It’s time for a Law Firm Hackathon.

What’s a Hackathon?

Hackathon is a portmanteau of hack + marathon, and is used to describe a brief, intense period of hands-on collaboration to solve a specific problem. Invented in the world of software development, hackathons initially were used to develop usable code by pooling the efforts of many over the course of a short period (e.g., a day, a weekend, or a week). Since then, hackathons have been used to re-imagine everything from a better New York City government website to social justice in Africa to the world’s sanitation crisis to improved management practices and reinventing business itself.

Here are some key elements of a hackathon:

  • Issue an open invitation so that you involve people who might otherwise be trapped in organizational silos — this event has to be more than the same old folks talking about the same old things
  • Frame the problem clearly at the beginning of the hackathon
  • Be sure to provide for creature comforts — food, drink and work space

The critical thing is to move past brainstorming to creating a workable prototype within the time period of the hackathon. The result need not be a final product. However, it should be something tangible or concrete on which you can build.

How to do a Law Firm Hackathon

  • Read Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology (see the “hackathon-in-a-box” materials)
  • Recruit widely from across the firm, but ensure that the firm’s senior leadership participates fully
  • Follow the good advice from the Mix Management Hackathon:
    • Be radical — the hack should make a discernible difference in your firm
    • Be practical — the hack should be easy to implement
    • Be simple — if the hack is too complicated, it won’t gain traction
  • When the hackathon is over, don’t waste time before you implement the winning hacks. In the words of Frans Johansson, the key is to “start with the smallest executable step.”

Start planning your law firm hackathon now. Time is running out. As Bruce MacEwen says: “We have no idea yet what BigLaw will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.”

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Here is some additional reading regarding hackathons:

[Photo Credit: Scott Beale]

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Frans Johansson Keynote #ILTA12

Frans Johansson is an innovation expert and author of The Medici Effect. As CEO of The Medici Group, he leads a team which helps clients improve their innovation efforts through an approach they call Intersectional Thinking:

Your best chance to innovate is at The Intersection. Here, concepts from diverse disciplines, fields, and cultures collide to form an explosion of unexpected idea combinations. It is from this large number of possible new combinations that one or two can emerge as high potential innovations.

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2012 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES: Act Collaborate to Drive Change

  • What Drives Innovation?. We innovate best when we connect with others and share new ideas/perspectives. The key is to connect across our differences.
  • Why is it necessary to innovate quickly?. If you want to keep your competitive advantage, you have to keep innovating because there has been a stunning drop in the amount of time it takes for your competitors to catch up with you.
  • Why is it so hard to innovate?. (1) As an organization gets larger, it moves more slowly. (How do you create a small firm for yourself? Buy a big company…and wait.) (2) We tend to use logic when planning innovation. However, since our competitors are doing the same thing, we’re likely to converge in the middle with eerily similar offerings, thus eliminating that which makes us distinctive. (3) Because change is hard (and threatening), we tend to settle for tweaking things around the edges rather than making a wholesale change. The impact of this is adding more widgets to a Yahoo portal page until the clutter is overcome by the spare and elegant design of a Google search page.
  • His Working Understanding. (1) Most truly stunning innovations result from combination two different ideas. (2) People that change the world try FAR more ideas. The greater the number of ideas that you generate and implement, the greater your chance of a breakthrough. You need to try many things because humans are very bad at predicting what will work. The key is to keep trying until you perfect your execution. When your first idea doesn’t work, you have to try again. (3) Diverse teams can unleash an explosion of new ideas. (He says this is a mathematical argument. He illustrates this by showing the number of combinations possible in rock music and classical music and then what happens when you start combining across these disciplines. You end up with an exponential increase in new ideas that leads to more opportunities for innovation. (e.g., He uses the example of “Tubular Bells,” which was huge crossover between rock and classical music.)
  • Create the Environment Necessary to Foster Innovation.. We can help organize our firms to foster innvation. This ranges from seating people within your department in such a way that they can’t help be exposed to new ideas and new ways of working. Individually, you also can ensure that you personally make connections with people within the firm who are in different disciplines or from different backgrounds or have different interests.
  • Use Technology to Drive (not just serve) New Business Models. Start by making it easier to collaborate internally and externally. Baker Donelson has a technology toolkit that made it possible for the client to work differently with its external counsel. The client liked it so well that they moved all their business to Baker Donelson. Goodwin Proctor collaborates with PBWorks to build wikis that help collaboration with clients and co-counsel.
  • The Pit StopTeam Exercise. Frans Johansson asked the audience members to team up with the person next to them to ask how they could apply example of the pit stop team to law firm life? Here are some suggestions that came from the audience: (1) have the IT team observe lawyers in their natural habitat and then ask what IT could do to help them. Rinse. Repeat. (2) Rather than having IT working in the background, waiting for instructions from the client-facing lawyers, find ways to put allow IT access to the lawyer team AND the clients so that you reduce the translation errors and give IT a better chance to sense the client needs.
  • What’s the Most Effecitve Way to Execute?. Start with a good idea. And then act on it. Johansson calls this the smallest executable step. It’s not about going directly to the desired Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Rather, execute the first step; adjust based on results; execute again. The key is to iterate your way to success.
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Curiosity Has Landed

Curiosity has landed on Mars!

I must admit that I love the fact that NASA called the Mars rover “Curiosity.”  To me curiosity is more than a danger to cats, it’s the driving force for innovation.

NASA has made available some wonderful video of the landing.  I watched several times the brief clip below of the mission team in the control room observing the landing. The tension is palpable, as is the relief and exhilaration when it is clear the rover has landed safely.

Since a reasonably creative person can almost always find a “knowledge management angle” to most things, I offer the following KM observations:

  • In watching the video, I was struck by the fact that in their moment of elation the members of the team sought physical contact with each other. Whether it was a “high five” or a bear hug, in every case it was real and tangible — not remote or virtual. From a KM perspective, it’s a useful reminder that despite the huge efficiencies brought about by computerization and automation, we should not forget that face to face interaction can be the most valuable medium for knowledge sharing. Virtual or remote service can achieve a great deal (especially for the do-it-yourselfer or the person working outside regular business hours).  However, sometimes nothing beats the ability to sit elbow to elbow with someone as you work through a problem together. It’s one of the oldest and most reliable ways of transmitting tacit knowledge.
  • Our poetry and prose are filled with lots of inspiring images of peak experiences. However, when it came to landing the rover, the scientific team chose the low elevation Gale Crater rather than higher terrain. Why this crater?  According to the NASA website: “The ideal landing site will have clear evidence of a past or present habitable environment. The site will have a favorable geologic record, such as layers of rock that are preserved and exposed at the surface, making them accessible to exploration, as well as evidence of past water.”  Clearly  you don’t have to be on a mountaintop to succeed. Sometimes low terrain contains more than enough valuable information. This is worth remembering when you are trudging through a plateau in the development of your KM system. If you keep your eyes open and your curiosity primed, you can learn something useful.
  • The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is impressive, but in this day and age not even this organization can do everything by itself. As a result, the mission to Mars includes the contributions of international partners such as the Canadian Space Agency and Russia’s Federal Space Agency. As you plan your KM effort, consider whether a strategic alliance with another department within your organization might help reduce your costs or increase your access to creative solutions. For example, there are natural alliances between KM and professional development or KM and Marketing.  There may even be groups within your organization that were historically hostile towards KM, but are now ripe for a change of view. Seek them out and find ways to cooperate. After all if the Russians and Americans can cooperate in space, why can’t KM establish and build productive relationships with other departments?
  • Mars is not a pleasant place. It’s cold and dusty. Its thin atmosphere cannot support liquid water over large regions. The planet currently does not appear to be habitable. Clearly, it is not a congenial place. But even here Curiosity is already proving valuable and productive.  I’m willing to bet that even your organization is not nearly as uncongenial as Mars. What might you uncover if you allowed curiosity to land there? Conducting controlled experiments in a safe-fail environment can be the best way to learn and to establish the path to innovation. What experiments is your KM group tackling? Where is your curiosity leading you?

Curiosity has landed on Mars. Has it landed in your organization?

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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]

 

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