A Lesson for the Modern Workplace and School: Connection Before Content

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a discussion led by Clayton Christensen on the future of education. As you may know, Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School who became famous for his work on disruptive innovation. So it was likely that this discussion would leave us feeling uncomfortable.

Christensen did not disappoint. He asked lots of challenging questions about the true value of higher education as currently constructed. What were residential colleges delivering that so exceeded the educational value of a free MOOC that those colleges could justify charging over $60 thousand or even over $70 thousand per year? And what about graduate schools? In this era of back-breaking student debt, what were they offering that the school of hard knocks could not?

I have been thinking a great deal about these questions since I started teaching in the M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program at Columbia University. And those questions became even more pressing when I became Academic Director on July 1. How do we justify the time, effort, and expense required by our program?

It would take me a while to enumerate all the ways in which the IKNS program provides value so let me focus on one thing that became very clear this past weekend: we provide a laboratory in which our students can learn proven concepts and practices that equip them for effective leadership.

On Wednesday, August 22, our new cohort of students arrived at Columbia University’s Morningside campus for four days of Intensive study (the Intensive). Our original impulse was to stuff them as full of learning as was humanly possible in such a short time. As a practical matter, this would have required lectures from 9:00am – 6:00pm daily. We could do that. But was it the right approach?

Early in our planning, we realized that we needed to rethink our approach. Given that our program is demanding and very hard to complete without collaboration, the key was to spend the Intensive building the capacity of the cohort to collaborate. So we rethought everything. Rather than making them sit through hours and hours of lectures, we first had them develop their own self-awareness and then their knowledge of their teammates. Through a series of carefully designed individual and group exercises, they built an extraordinary level of trust and empathy. Then we could focus on learning collaboratively.

Our bet paid off. Within hours, these new students moved from being strangers to being friends. And, in that capacity, were more than willing to share their own knowledge and experience to help a classmate integrate new concepts and practices. In the process, they all learned an astonishing amount remarkably quickly. Arguably, more than they could have learned sitting passively through a series of well-intended lectures.

Don’t get me wrong. We had formal teaching sessions. But only after they were ready to learn together.

This experience is a timely reminder of an insight Nancy Dixon has shared with several prior IKNS cohorts: Connection before Content.” Building on the work of Peter Block, Dixon observed that in the workplace, we all work better when we know each other and trust each other. But that knowledge and trust should not be left to happenstance. A thoughtful manager can help speed the development of professional relationship and trust through some intentional practices such as ensuring that team members connect (and later reconnect) with each other before diving into the agenda. This creates a foundation of goodwill and understanding that can act as a shock absorber for the necessary creative friction of teamwork.

If “Connection before Content” is true in the physical workplace, it is doubly true in the virtual workplace and in a virtual learning environment such as ours. The capacity to connect enables the capacity to collaborate and the capacity to share knowledge.

Thankfully, our newest cohort demonstrated this past weekend that they are well on their way to developing their capacity to collaborate with their classmates. NOW they are ready to learn in our program and share that learning with their colleagues at work.

All of us will be the better for it.

 

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Milkshakes and Purple Cows

Purple Cow One persistent issue that arises in the world of knowledge management is how best to market your systems and services. Unfortunately, discussions of this issue often devolve into descriptions of tactics: launch email blitzkriegs, offer food to encourage attendance at training sessions, bribe potential users with the latest i-device or (in lower rent populations) Starbucks gift cards. Similarly, you see law firm marketing departments carpet bombing clients with generic legal alerts or seasonal cards that are rarely read or retained. In most cases, these tactics have nearly the same effect:  they don’t work.

So what are we to do? Focus on Milkshakes, Purple Cows and Otaku, of course!

Milkshakes

My friend Jeffrey Rovner pointed me to an interesting talk by Clayton Christensen on marketing. Christensen posits that in order to motivate a customer to buy your product, you first need to understand the job for which that customer is likely to “hire” your product. The brief video clip below ends with the words: “…if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”

Just obvious? As we say in New York, “From your lips to God’s ears,” Dr. Christensen.

In the case of the milkshake, Christensen and his colleagues discovered that the drink was being purchased for two different jobs: (1) to allay hunger and provide entertainment during a boring morning commute and (2) to help parents placate children with a seemingly nutritious treat. So if you were marketing to the commuter, you’d play up the interesting taste and thickness of the drink that led to a longer and more satisfying period of entertainment. If you were marketing to the parent, you’d emphasize the nutritional benefits and the appeal to children, while perhaps thinning the milkshake to allow little mouths to drink the shake more quickly.

Digging further into this research, I learned that understanding a job means more than just understanding the bare function involved.  In fact, there are three critical dimensions of each job: the functional, the social and the emotional.  When developing and marketing a product, you have to address all three elements from the customer’s perspective in order to optimize the chances of your product being “hired to do the job.”

Purple Cows

Marketing maven, Seth Godin, is famous for pointing out that few of us stop the car when driving past a cow in the countryside.  In rural America, a cow is not an unusual sight. However, if the cow in question was purple, not only would you stop the car, but you’d grab your smartphone, take a photo and post it on every social media platform you use. Why? A purple cow is remarkable — it is worthy of being remarked upon. Godin’s thesis is that your product needs to be a purple cow. What does this mean? It needs to stand out from the crowd, it needs to be special — it needs to be remarkable. It follows, then, that developing products aimed at the lowest common denominator, designed to provoke the least amount of controversy, will pretty much guarantee that those products barely register in the consciousness of the consumer. (Christensen notes that every year 30,000 new products are launched, and 95% of them fail.)

Otaku

Godin also refers to Otaku, which Wikipedia describes as “a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests.” According to Godin, a product has a much better chance of succeeding if it appeals to otaku. Why? Because the care enough to seek it out and tell others about it. This kind of word of mouth marketing is priceless.  The first step, however, is to know your otaku and match your product to their needs and interests.

So what do milkshakes, purple cows and otaku have to teach us? Understand the job your product is being hired to do, make sure your product is absolutely remarkable and then market it first to the people who care enough to tell others about your good work.

Here are the videos:

Clayton Christensen:

Seth Godin’s snippet on Purple Cows and Otaku:

Seth Godin’s full TED Talk:

 

[Photo Credit: Jon Milet Baker]

 

 

 

 

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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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