Archive for the ‘Agility’ Category

On reflection it's a fine balance

Good judgement is more in demand than ever before. In our intricately connected technologically advanced society where information travels faster than we do, but expert knowledge about its implications may take years of experience to interpret, for most of us certainty is hard to come by. So most decisions involve some element of judgement.  Take today for instance.  I got up and opened my hall cupboard to get out my yoga mat. For the first time in 7 years living here I smelt gas.  I called my husband. He couldn’t smell a thing! Shrugged and walked away.  Now I have to make a judgement. Call the emergency helpline? Or is my nose just over sensitive? So I shut the door, do my yoga, go back and repeat the process, half an hour later. To me the smell is stronger:  my husband still can’t smell a thing.  Having just read the book Being Wrong by Kathryn Shulz, I know my brain could be am bias. Our brains leap quickly to assumptions when fear is involved, their designed to. We have a natural confirmation bias, to confirm our own beliefs.  But I know my husband is far better at practical things than I am, and he was an engineer before he retired, so he’s more likely to be right.  Then I remember the smoke filled room experiment!   If I call National Grid, will they think I am wasting their time? What constitutes a leak worth reporting? If I don’t do anything will I be able to sleep tonight? It’s coming up to Easter and weather is getting colder, so I want my heating working. How quickly can National Grid fix a leak?  Will I just end up with gas shut off and a miserable Easter?  No-idea of the answer to any of those questions! How can I assess risk when I’ve never faced this situation before?  Simple example, but poor judgement could have relatively small or relatively large consequences.  Inevitably I weigh the risk of being cold against going up in flames and decide to err on the side of caution.  The gas man cometh!

We expect sound judgement from leaders in business, politics, the legal system, public institutions; we hope parents, teachers, members of society will exercise sound judgement.

According to Tom Davenport (an early KM guru) and Brook Manville, (forward by Larry Prusak) in their new book on Judgement Calls ,

“…the belief that the traditional paradigm of decision making – where an all-seeing and wise CEO ‘makes the call’ alone- is being superseded by more participative and data-intensive approaches”.

About 18 months ago, we ran a KM Forum themed day on these data-intensive approaches, inspired by Tom Davenport’s books Competing on Analytics and Analytics at work. It certainly plays an important part in providing evidence to support sound judgement. But of course you have to have the data to look at before you can find the patterns, or identify the insights on which to base your judgement.   But the mathematics of probability, normal distribution and the like, only work when you have a large enough sample and the anomalies aren’t paradigm breaking.  If you listen to this Analysis, 10 Downing Street appears to be influenced by Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s counter arguments about the impact of the highly improbable.

Of course, it may not have been concerns over the impact of the highly improbable that encouraged the government to make suggestions about topping up your tank to create a petrol shortage before any strike ever got off the ground?  Maybe it was an insight from the Nudge Unit?  Who knows, but to my mind that experience certainly leads you to think twice about the Wisdom of Crowds where self interest is concerned.  I listened to the news in dismay as people said how it was madness that everyone was rushing to fill up, were irritated at the chaos, and then admitted that they wanted to be sure they could get around!

Collective judgement is a tricky issue as Tom Davenport’s final chapter suggests. It’s a knowledge issue at heart.

“The great advantage of a more collective information and knowledge intensive approach is that done well, it offsets the litany of pitfalls one person making a decision can fall into “Chapter 13

That is provided we can

  • Learn from success, but then recognise situations where the lessons no longer hold true
  • Reframe the rather concrete notion of decisions instead think about an ongoing collaborative process of evolving a solution to a problem, through small experiments and frequent feedback.
  • Invest in developing collective leadership judgement through experience with real problems and repeated practice, with some time for reflection on lesson learned, and some coaching on how to improve.

Members of the Henley KM Forum can access our guide to better organisational decision making produced in 2009, from the members’ website. There is also a complementary publication on coaching for better decision making. Those who are not members may want to download free our Knowledge in Action brochures Issue 21 and 22.

Just in case you are worried about my status over Easter, the gas man arrived, used his analytics (a neat little sniffer machine) found a leak – yes my nose was right, replaced the regulator, and all for free. Great service, lesson learned, rely on my judgement and ignore my husband’s sense of smell which is clearly not helpful in this small collective of marital bliss!

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Inspirational Relationships?Image: tungphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Relationships are a core concern for anyone interested in knowledge and learning.  The word relating is interesting in that it can mean connecting with others in a way that is meaningful for each party, or it can mean verbally telling or explaining an experience or a set of events via the medium of story.  What’s common to both is a concern for communicating meaning.  I think what is different is the depth of meaning each type of relating achieves.   Relationships create meaningful bonds between people, relating stories helps sense-making, but the meaning derived may not be shared. A fine distinction; but just as meaningful as the distinction between information and knowledge, if you are thinking about the quality of KM activities, and their impact on community.

As an aside, it’s ironic that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s book was called the Social Life of Information.  It’s one of the few instances when blurring the distinction between information and knowledge made good sense.  (Connecting to Amazon to create the hyperlink above, I was reminded that I bought the book on the 13th March 2001, just in case I had forgotten!) By challenging to the glory of IT storing and shifting information, at the turn of the millennium, Seely Brown and Duguid seemed to presage something of shift in the KM world.   Relationship capital became more prominent in the Intellectual Capital arena. The priority of people relating and Nahapiet and Goshal’s concept of social capital became of practical interest to organisations. Although some people still confuse information management and knowledge management, many organisations are shifting from capture to collaborate and accept the limitations of the ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality.  Probably just co-incidental timing, as the web became more ubiquitous, social media started to develop.  We started to hear about Web 2.0 around 2002, and Stanley Milgram’s six degrees of separation quickly became four or less. This you tube social psychology lecture from Yale explains the principles at about 3 minutes into the video and goes on to explore the foundations of social network analysis.  If you want to read more the Duncan Watts also published an relative easy read on this important topic.

People relate to one another in many ways. We all have a mixture of close connections and loose associations in our relationship network. From a knowledge perspective, each serves a different purpose; the former give us a strong sense of belonging, deep tacit knowledge sharing opportunities, and more meaningful feedback, the latter provide timely access to ideas, insights and trending topics, better responsiveness to external dynamics and greater reach.  In the    All of the ties that bind need some form of maintenance, it is up to us as individuals to decide what proportion of our time we invest in networking compared to revitalising community bonds.

We talked a lot about relating stories at the KM forum conference; they are a popular means of conveying ideas in a way that others can relate to. But it is worth asking, by relating stories do we cement our relationships? Historically, perhaps.


The campfire was the 'Ba' space for storytelling

Before the written word, stories were a form of knowledge sharing that bound the community together, and helped them survive. They were crafted and distilled from the best of collective experience and the telling was associated with times of safety and warmth– you don’t tell a story when a sabre tooth tiger is bearing down on you, shouted instructions are far more useful!  Culturally, the campfire is the equivalent of Nonaka’s ‘Ba’ space for story telling. That image resonates across many cultures.  A collection of stories was a wellspring of learning, and an oral history that gave the community a sense of identity and purpose, re-enforcing principles and values that mattered. That makes them powerful.

Nowadays stories are still good for finding points of connection. But in modern society community ties are much more fragmented, and stories can be interpreted outside of the context of belonging to some collective that assures our survival.  A well crafted story can be the communique of choice for gifted politicians, influential speakers and educators; it grounds concepts in real life challenges and adds human interest.  Taken out of the intimate context of a community, stories can have a different side to them. Undoubtedly, it’s human nature to relate instinctively to stories, which means that once recognised, this can become a tool of deliberate influence. I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  Just that story tellers have choices. Stories can be used care-fully or manipulatively. Until it became too expensive, advertisers loved ‘serials’, stories around a theme – remember Beatty and the BT phone ads that ran for years?   If you have to convince someone of your ideas, and can get a quick win with a story told with integrity, then, why not follow the principles of different types of story-telling and use them to achieve results?  Two books worth studying are Tell to Win  or Steve Dennings book the Leaders guide to Storytelling. Stories are memorable, emotive packages of words that do an effective job of conveying context with fact and interpretation. But in my view we have to think beyond one off stories and consider how stories become ongoing and evolving narratives – connected, purposeful and thematic. Steve Denning talks of narratives as a secret language of leadership

It is the patterns of discourse which are interesting if we are trying to effect durable change.  Isolated stories make relatively simply points. In some ways they are blunt instruments; to effect lasting change in organisations they have to become narratives to spread and as they spread they evolve.  Discourse, -the ongoing stream of dialogue, debate and conversational dynamics over time is what shapes how organisations either adapt and change or stagnate and die.   It is this we in the KM profession need to be aware of.  I would argue that we need to study this more than stories in the future if we are going to understand how to increase the agility.  Shifts in discourse are subtle signs of collective mood swings, they will signal how tensions are affecting groups, highlight the emotional resonances in the tensions which may become contagious, and so give us a sense of emerging trends.

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Follow the red brick road to empowerment AND organisational learning?

After from my throwaway comment at the end of Thursday’s blog,   it struck me that embedding courage, wisdom and heart into the fabric of the organisation is a good recipe for managing risk and essential ingredients for agility. But it will be a long journey, because the attributes have to move from the intuition of the individual, which is the mental spark that something needs to change right through to an institutionalised wisdom that is readily accepted by groups across the organisation.   Clearly learning has to happen at several levels, individual, group, across groups to finally become part of the organisational DNA.  There are both psychological and socio-political influences on this process, which become more and more difficult to negotiate the larger the organisation grows.  This article is very academic, but it does outline some of the issues. You may not want to read it in detail, but Figure 1 offers a useful diagram that captures what I mean and Table 1 shows a useful summary of the politics of organisational learning and the dynamics of power as they impact on organisational evolution. On a more practical note, the case study which Louse Montgomery and Julia Montgomery will share at the conference seems to address this challenge head on through the idea of making the learning pathways of Investment Bankers explicit.  Again I don’t want to steal their thunder, but I do think it is worth provoking interest in why recording progress en route to knowledge excellence could do more than just help the individual in their reflections and development. As Victoria Wardtold us, when she proposed this session for the conference, negotiating a pathway, creates a change in the contract between the individual, their line manager and their organisation, it provides a reference point that stays stable while everything around is changing, and makes an important and demonstrable connection between the individual’s commitment to learning and development and the organisation’s commitment to refreshing knowledge and skills. So it’s not just about isolated learning interventions, but about how they connect to the business performance, and strategy.   That does not do justice to the richness of the process and how it addresses the social and political forces identified in the article above, so I will have to come back to this topic after the conference.  For now, I just want to flag the idea of tailoring learning and development to strategic business conditions and then linking it to emerging individual needs as a great way of translating learning at the individual into organisational learning.  By recognising

 “the individual needs of people throughout their careers, with the aim of building capability from the moment they join a business to the point that they achieve peak performance.

such programmes, designed to achieve knowledge excellence in the beleaguered Investment Banking community,  are most encouraging

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We are busy collecting props for Nick Milton’s session at the Henley KM Forum conference; We’ve also surmounted Henley’s quite natural resistance to plugging untested electrical equipment into our building circuits, and found ways to accommodate about 90 delegates all being active in one space together.  (The session will be fun, I promise you and there are lots of valuable lessons to learn, but I am not going to give the game away!) Nick is a regular blogger so I have been checking out his musings.  A couple of Nick recent Knoco stories focus on the role of asking in knowledge sharing, and the KM techniques that embody the mechanisms for encouraging pull rather than push.  So it was in that context, that I smiled when I saw his blog on the 20th  February.

funnyanimalpictures.netThere’s no text, just this well known picture:-  with the caption, Mother told me there would be days like this!  Nick I sympathise!  Why did it make me though smile? Because the animal that usually pulls the heaviest loads is an ass!    But the metaphor started me thinking about information overload and potential to make a dumb mistake, unless we take the time and energy in this fast paced, social media savvy world to sort the wheat from the chaff.   What stories are the ones that we really need to learn from one, and which are the ones that contain misleading messages for our own specific context?   They may well be valid in other contexts, but often it is the subtle variations shaping the context that make the difference between something that is worthwhile for us to learn from and something that would not make a dent in our own particular circumstances.

Transferability is one of the big issues for qualitative research, and one of the reasons why thinking before adoption is so important for appropriate adaptations. Can the ideas generated through research be readily applied across contexts?    Do we have enough understanding of the detail of the context to see how we can apply them to ours?  This is one of the reasons why networking face to face is so valuable. It’s the opportunity to meet with the experts, quiz them on the detail of their situation and decide how it relates to ours.

But, I’ll dare to suggest it also comes back to the spending some quality time in the slow thinking stream, which Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.   Kahnemann is credited with being the founder of behavioural economics, a field of thinking which brings understanding of real human behaviour and social psychology, to theories of rational economic man, that formed the foundation of economics for a long time.   Together with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel prize for their work on bias in decisions and choices.  Only by understanding the full detail of his work, will you see how to relate it to your KM problems, but those of you who heard Graham O’Connell’s opening session at the November KM Forum meeting will remember him talking about why slow reflective thinking helps us find the patterns, discriminate what is valuable through the extent of resonant connections, cross validate with other evidence and plan accordingly.  In addition there may be the weight of the moral, ethical angle to evaluate.  I have just come across an immediate example related of this last risk of decisions divorced from the detail of context, whilst listening to ‘The Stream’ on Al Jazeera. The issue for their attention was  When should police use Social media to solve crimes? The obvious ethical dimension of this problem is when might the activity affect innocent people’s lives and what protection are in place to ensure that the potential negative consequences of crowd sourcing the search for a suspect doesn’t outweigh the potential public good associated with taking a real criminal off the streets?  Could an innocent person be convicted based on perceptions of observers that may well be biased?  We know from research that people are often inaccurate witnesses.  We also know that weight of perception can be a strong influence on decision making; the risk is that the potential heavy weight attributed to the much larger number of potentially inaccurate sightings of a person, could lead to a wrongful conviction.  Of course it could equally well lead to faster justice.

It’s n


Think slowly when you summon the Social Media Genie

ot the sharing activity that is problematic, it’s whether we have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure that information overload does not distort our thinking. You may like to download the white paper on Knowledge Sharing 2.0 and the Social Media Genie, which was produced as a result of research project in the Henley KM Forum last year.  In the case of police use of social media I’ve no doubt there are careful rules for when and where this is allowed, and there are certainly many benefits to be gained from a fast and agile response that social media can create.    However, I would also argue that some slow and care-full thinking about the how we use the social media are also vital.  Otherwise we run the risk that for some important decision an unreasonable weight of perception will sway our decisions and those pulling the cart end up without firm ground under their feet!

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Just a week to go to the conference, and we are getting excited, All the speakers slides are coming in, and we are starting to talk with them about writing a report about the conference afterwards. Then even if you miss a day, you’ll be able to get a good sense of the coverage and conversations around Organisational Learning and Leadership.   One person I have not mentioned in these blogs so far is Victor Newman.  He probably doesn’t need an introduction to our KM Forum members, because he has been involved in projects on innovation, presented at events and conferences and is always well received.  Anyone in KM who hasn’t encountered his Baton Passing techniques and his views on innovation is missing a vital part of their KM education.    He’s keen on the issue of Leadership Agility in the context of Innovation, as you can see from his recent blog. Agility for entrepreneurs and SME’s is critical when size affects you ability to absorb mistakes in sense-making, changes in the external conditions, when you have a smaller buffer between you and catastrophe in many areas of the supply chain, or in customer reach and loyalty.  Living closer to the edge of survival is likely to make you sharper.

I mentioned in an earlier blog, that I have been watching the Super Smart Animals series, and

A Chickadee in Canada

one experiment with Chickadees from Kansas and Canada is enlightening in this respect.  In episode 1 of the series, we learned that Chickadees are the same genetically all over the American continent. But Chickadees from Canada are smarter than their cousins from Kansas, simply because they have had to live closer to the edge.  Food is plentiful all year round in Kansas, but northern Chickadees have to cope with much more extreme weather conditions and making it harder to find food and survive.  As a result they explore and work things out for themselves. In one experiment a bird from each location was presented with a wooden panel in which tasty grubs sat in little holes.  Unfortunately the holes were covered with metal lids with a glass window in. So the birds could see the grub, but not reach it, without doing something unfamiliar.   Kansas chickadees spent time tapping on the window, looking longingly at the grub. Canadian Chickadees got down and used their claws to prise off the lids and reach underneath to get the prize.  Clever birds!  No-one had told them how to be innovative, but conditions had made them more agile.

We know that crisis is a catalyst for change, but if that is not a frequent occurrence, the learning can be limited.  This suggests that agility is something that requires constant practice; what makes us endure the discomfort of repeated practice?  Pressures on survival!

The Lion, The Scarecrow, Dorothy and the Tinman

On that basis, hopefully the current economic crisis will be good for the more complacent financial and political chickadees, who are no longer in Kansas with Dorothy, but on a journey that needs the courage of a lion, that  wisdom of the scarecrow’s brain and one that puts real heart in the Tin man!

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Sense-making is one a key leadership practice that gives the organisation agility. But it is a tricky one, when we are bombarded with so many different stimuli.  As Sarah Grimwood the practitioner co-champion for the research on building agile leadership capability told me

 “Organisations need leaders that can adapt to a rapidly changing world (and can take others with them).   The volume of information that we can now access instantly online, including on social media sites, requires leaders to be able to quickly assimilate what is really important and to communicate this to their teams.”

Sarah is KM Lead at MWH and is also talking about communities as the basis of organisational learning at the conference.

Co-ordinating different leadership activities

The issue is what is required to co-ordinate all the sense-making of all the leaders of communities, projects and cultures so that they feel connected to a direction that keeps the organisation competitive and flexible?  As long as the organisational identity is defined sufficiently broadly it can offer a meaningful collective purpose for a whole range of dynamic capabilities.  Community can also mitigate risks associated with communities of practice becoming so strong that they won’t let go of what they know.  After a while the emotional reward of being in a successful and close knit group, can create blinkers to accepting new ways of framing what people do. Dynamism is lost.  We often argue that communities have a life. But if they don’t disband naturally, they can keep refining knowledge beyond what adds value; they become so invested in the specialist knowledge that made them distinctive, that unlearning is not considered. With no external market pressures the organisation is at risk of stagnation, despite the evident value of communities as learning mechanisms.  This is where diversity pays dividends in challenging thinking. It is also why senior leaders have an important role to play in asking questions about where renewal will come from.  Structurally this may be a good time to introduce some inter group competition to challenge the value of existing know-how for the future, it may be when mergers and acquisitions create a different rhythm for renewal.  Obviously that creates all sorts of discomfort and tension for change recipients. In a world where it is easy to become overwhelmed by new ideas, innovation and change, bounding the possible with bonds of collective identity that make sense to all involved provides a stake the ground that helps people adapt and decide how to integrate new regimes with what is valuable from the organisational knowledge bank and the historical legacy of reputation. Coaching is another context specific integrating mechanism, but depends heavily on the quality of the people acting as coaches, and their ability to both recognise and deal with the tensions that arise and communicate well with others one to one and one to many.

The concept of a community of influence is a novel development that also works across boundaries to use knowledge diversity. Organised as a set of loose association of other organisations and key stakeholders, it offers a fluid mechanism for adaptation that takes into account multiple voices and uses them to accumulate learning and change through practice in very large scale problems. By connecting smaller communities, that retain their specific identity and purpose, but can work from different perspectives on a common cause, a powerful body for influencing decision making emerges at the societal level. The network then can influence the particular external conditions which limit each smaller organisation’s ability to create the necessary change.  It is harnessing difference, beyond the focus of the specific collectives that contribute.  I am looking forward to hearing more at the Henley KM Forum conference about how MacMillan Cancer Care have overcome the challenges of making this work across different interests to realise a more joined up and innovative approach to this very important form of healthcare.  If you are coming to the conference you’ll get the chance to really explore the challenges of creating and sustaining communities of influence.  If you are not attending, then Alison Donaldson, Elizabeth Lank and Jane Maher have written a book, which tells the story of how these relative loose associations of professionals, specialists and patients can over a long period of time produce durable learning and change through conversations and relationships.

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Trying to live up to yesterday’s commitment to get back to blogging and explore the conference themes, today I am going to focus on emotions and how they affect responses to change. It’s not my intention to give away what the speakers are going to say, but more to start some thinking about why these themes are relevant to our KM practice.

Organisational learning helps change and makes it stick. In KM we can’t make it happen directly, we have to work through influence. It’s the leadership in all the different areas of expertise that have to implement it and keep people motivated to deliver and learn at the same time.

But learning and change create all sorts of emotional responses for those involved. Some people thrive on it, some people fear it. To some extent, it depends on whether people feel confident that they can turn change into an opportunity, or whether they are happier with working in well know territory with familiar routines and expertise. A leader’s mood is highly contagious. It can have an enormous influence on that balance, as well as how well the KM techniques and technologies we know and love get adopted in practice. So for me the quote below[1] captures what we need from leadership across the board, in projects, teams divisions and departments.

Be positive

“Effective leaders prime good feelings in those they lead. They create emotional resonance – a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people” 

That would really improve knowledge flow. The best in people from a KM and a business perspective means people using their skills and expertise and capabilities to their full potential to deliver results.

From personal experience, I know that when I’ve worked with someone   who has innate emotional intelligence, it makes a difference to how valued I feel, affects whether I get a strong sense of belonging to something worthwhile, and changes my levels of engagement. In a high pressure business environment, acknowledging and dealing with the feelings that affect how well we exercise our capabilities is as important as dealing with the task, but it’s easy for the former to get overlooked, with detrimental effect on knowledge work. Perhaps because it’s easier to manage tasks than emotions, perhaps because we feel we achieve more by concentrating on the task, or perhaps because we are not sensitised to the emotional climate.

I’m not suggesting leadership is about being soft and cuddly all the time. In the March/April 2000 edition of Harvard Business Review[2] Goleman reviewed some research conducted by Hay McBer. They found that leaders who get results move seamlessly between six familiar leadership styles, some much harder than others. The interesting thing was that they use all six flexibly rather than relying on just a few of them. You’ll recognise the six styles in people you know, but think about how many leaders you know who feel comfortable using the full range.

“Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision. Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. Democratic leaders build consensus through participation. Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction. And coaching leaders develop people for the future. “

Leading for results means knowing how to match style to context so that followers feel supported and are not floundering in situations where they feel they don’t belong. To do this leaders need to be able to connect with their own, and others fears, hopes anxieties, dreams and potential, whilst also setting clear boundaries and expectations that support a level of emotional resilience to change, personal commitment to the organization and continuous self management and well-being. That sort of emotional intelligence comes from four quite distinct personal sensitivities: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill.

With these, leaders gain the capacity to vary their style, and so get the best from those who follow them. Increasing emotional intelligence should amplify the impact of knowledge and learning activities. This is one reason why we have included it as one of the leadership practices in our 46th Henley KM Forum research project. We were exploring what it takes to develop knowledge driven leadership agility. Conference delegates will learn more about the full set of practices and the development challenge we have created to raise awareness of the sort of leadership capability that really supports knowledge work. If you aren’t coming, I will be referring to them in my blogs up until the conference. So watch this space.

In the next blog, I’m going to talk more about what happens when the collective emotional undercurrent becomes negative overall. That puts me in mind of Daan Andriessen’s presentation at the 2010 KM Forum conference. Those of you who belong to the Henley KM Forum can download his slides from the members’ website. Those of you who don’t belong, can learn what you are missing, by visiting Daan’s website. You’ll find the presentation in the Knowledge Management part of his presentations area Look for “The Unconscious at Work; How hidden patterns in organisations may hamper KM” Presentation given at the Henley KM Forum 2010.

[1] Goleman, D Boyatzis, RE and McKee, A (2009) Primal Leadership. Leadership Excellence  vol 26 (iss) 10: 9-10.

[2] Goleman, D (2000) Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review  vol 78 (iss) 2: 78-90.

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Lighting up the day for me

Light-bulb moments are precious things.   How you get to them is often a bit of luck, usually something to do with synchronicity.  When timing helps you make the connection between different areas of knowledge and mentally put two and two together.

Yesterday I was blessed with some of that good luck. At lunch time, I gave a webinar on knowledge in decision making. I was sharing some research we’d completed in 2009 with a very diverse audience sitting as far apart as South Africa, USA and the Middle East. Being filmed talking to myself was a new experienced, but it was interactive and actually good  fun. If you feel inclined you can watch a recording of the webinar,  just register via this link.  Immediately after that I went home to prepare for a Breakfast Briefing event that Christine and I are doing in London on 20th October (sorry the event is full, but you can get details of future events in the Leadership@ henley series here). The topic for the 20th is is Developing ambidexterity: How leaders create the conditions to engage both sides of the organisational brain.

To prepare for the webinar I was revisiting some well established research on decision biases, and also some work by Dave Snowden on how decision makers need to change the way they respond according to whether they are facing a complex, complicated, chaotic or simple problem situation. One of the biases in any situation is the fact that how something is communicated has a strong influence on the recipient’s decisions, simply because we feel as well as a reason. I used the example of patients being told about a major operation. If you try to give them confidence by telling that the operation only has a 15% failure rate, they are much less likely to go for the operation, that if you tell them it has an 85% success rate.

Then I came home a started to think about some ideas from a Harvard Business Review article called The Ambidextrous CEO ( Tushman et al 2011 full reference at the end), and how they might relate to the research we did on organisational ambidexterity. Ambidextrous organisations are those which know how to manage their performance in the short term through efficiencies and cost control, whilst at the same time looking forward to where the organisation needs to be in the future by maintaining their focus on innovation. It sounds straightforward. But the process of exploiting current knowledge and optimising its value generation relies on repetition, reducing risk and structures which tend to introduce rigidity, whereas exploration of unfamiliar ways of doing things as the basis for innovation needs flexibility, determination in the face of uncertainty and entrepreneurial judgement. That in itself creates several tensions around organisational priorities. One is around identity, what is the organisation all about. If you define it too narrowly as the authors of the article explain, you limit perspective on what is possible. If you define it too broadly the decision making boundaries about what is included and what is excluded from organisational capabilities become fuzzy, decisions are more complex, and efficiency goes down. And what is more, people don’t feel they belong to something coherent. Another tension arises around timing: what matters now and what will matter in the future in terms of knowledge and expertise that support business capabilities. How do we reconcile the pressures of meeting targets now and giving resources to something that only promises of some future ill-defined returns? A third is learning, or more specifically unlearning, when do you turn away from the knowledge that has been the source of your success and put your faith in knowledge that is fresh but untested The article suggests is that often the CEO is the only ‘friend’ of innovation, yet may end up with trade-offs between core business and innovation by default, because they delegate responsibility to unit heads and the unit heads are focused on performance targets. Far better to ensure the top team is targeted to deal explicitly with the tensions inherent in the dual demands, both in terms of their personal responsibilities and their procedures for negotiating solutions. Even then, if times are tough and the pressure is on to deliver quarterly results, often the potential failure rate of new innovations can loom large. A quote from the article illustrates the enormity of the challenge

“As Cray Computer’s Pete Ungaro told us, “We had to convince ourselves that spending 50% of our time on something that is delivering 5% of the company’s revenues was worth the effort.” Nonetheless, the results speak for themselves. Once near death, Cray has fought back to profitability, and in 2010, revenues grew by more than 6%.”

So what was my insight? Well it was small, but maybe useful. If decision makers are generally better disposed to the positive messages – the 85% success rate communication, rather than the potential of 15% failure, then even if they structure the top team to hold and examine the tension, conversations about the contradictory demands of efficiency and innovation will always have an inherent bias towards efficiency, because top team members will have much more experience of success compared to innovation. In addition the ambient economic climate at present is full of pessimism rather than optimism. Consequently, because of the timing, learning, resources and structuring challenges, the exploration of risk probabilities will probably be seen as compounding. Still it is important not to shy away from innovation to fuel future economic growth. To overcome the negative bias, it seemed to me that it might be worthwhile adopting a discipline in top team negotiations focused on the ambidexterity paradox, which requires everyone to pay particular attention to the successful risk mitigation strategies from previous innovation projects. By considering what they can learn and apply from positive events in the past, perhaps the temptation to can another innovation project in the face of immediate performance pressures, will be lessened and the top team may feel more comfortable holding the tension.


TUSHMAN, M.L. SMITH, W.K. and BINNS, A. (2011). The Ambidextrous CEO. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business School Publication Corp.,

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Should we think differently about how we manage businesses? Gary Hamel and Julian Birkinshaw from London Business School would certainly answer with a resounding yes. A moment’s reflection and you can see why.

When we operate in a world that is so intimately interconnected and financially interdependent, local ’dis-ease’ (be that lack of confidence or disruption to ‘normal’ operating parameters) in any part of the value chain quickly becomes a pandemic that disrupts the planned pattern of business activities. Think of the ripple effects of Greek debt, the Japanese Tsunami, the Arab Spring, the European E-Coli scare, the Icelandic Ash cloud, and now the prospect of the American debt crisis. Each of these events has had some significant impact on business and the economy, whether in terms of increasing oil prices, damaging confidence in the financial markets, or disrupting supplies and business travel. They’ve all happened this year, and we’re only in August. Whilst in the past management has been about creating stability and security, now the search is on for the source of agility and resilience. There are so many angles that need to be though through, so in 2009, Gary Hamel assembled a self styled Renegade Brigade of big thinkers from industry and academia to start the exploration. They came up with a set of Management Moonshots and you can join the ongoing conversation and contribute your thoughts. Those of you who are members of the KM Forum will remember Julian Birkinshaw speaking about his ideas on Re-Inventing Management, and if you missed it, you can always download his slides from the members website ( sorry to those of you who are not members this is a private area, which only becomes accessible if you join the Henley KM Forum

Clearly knowledge and learning are going to play a big part in the process of re-inventing management, so in 2010, in our own small way, the Henley KM Forum conducted a similar experiment to Gary Hamel. We assembled a group of 14 well known thinkers in the knowledge and learning world and asked them what they thought would help business thrive in a volatile world. This produced some interesting complementary ideas. You can read more about who was involved and learn from over 200 years of collective intelligence that was in the room that afternoon. It is summarised in a short article here,  You can also think about how you can follow the same sort of process by downloading Issue 17 of our Knowledge in Action Series, called Swarm Creativity.

What happens when two black swans come along at once?

Then we might all be better prepared for the arrival of those Black Swans !



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I’ve just enjoyed a lovely lunch and an all expenses paid trip down the river at Henley Regatta. The price I paid was minimal. It was Journalists day at Henley, so to build everyone’s appetite faculty were asked to stand up and say something for five minutes before lunch. The general theme was improving, individuals, organisations and society. They asked me to say a bit about how knowledge affects decision- making.  I thought I’d share the extended version of what I said here.  

So, in Wimbledon fortnight and being a keen tennis player, I decided to tell a tennis ball story.

Last year, they used 54,250 Slazenger balls in Wimbledon fortnight. It was an odd year because of the marathon 11 hour Isner/Mahut match. But that only used 123 balls. Useful information if you’re ordering balls, trivia to a player. They change balls every 9 games, because of wear and tear. Someone must have done the cost, benefit calculation, to reach that conclusion. But, professional players inspect the balls at every serve and reject ones that don’t suit their needs. They know that choice affects their performance. I can’t say it would affect mine! Maybe their fussiness is simple superstition! But when you learn that a BLINDFOLDED professional tennis player can accurately tell whether tournament balls were used on clay, grass or hard surfaces, simply by feeling them, it starts to say something about how knowledge works in decision making.
In decisions about service performance, tennis pros combine knowledge of an opponent’s ability, ball placement, spin, the wear on the ball, how they work on the court surface, their own level of confidence, the score at the time. In a few seconds they make a judgement i.e. a knowledgeable decision.
I heard Dave Snowden at KM UK talk about the 4 E’s of knowledge which made me think how do they affect how anyone uses knowledge in decision making.
Knowledge is Embodied – We imagine decisions are rational. Input facts and evidence, reason through some analytical process and you get sound output. But neuroscience has shown knowledge is a whole body experience. It involves hormones and muscles as well as the brain. Researchers asked young men to walk across a rickety bridge. Afterwards a young woman approached them to ask them to fill out the questionnaire. She gave them her phone number under the pretext of doing more research. 65% of the men phoned her after to ask her for a date. When exactly the same woman approached men sat on a bench with the exactly the same spiel, only 30% of them phoned her later. Why? Because the former were energized by the rickety bridge and attributed their excitement to the woman who met them on the other side! A picture of a smiling woman has more effect than a 5% reduction in interest rates on male loan decisions!

You can’t blame them. All decisions have an emotional and a subconscious element. With damage to the emotional centres of their brain, people can’t make even the most basic decisions. Emotions sensitise us to the consequences in context; the subconscious allows us to read subtle signals to respond to good or bad situations. Without that sensitivity, we don’t recognise opportunities and risks quickly enough.
What does that mean for business decision making? People are profoundly influenced by context, so there are more biases in most individual decisions than we generally imagine.
Initial information biases behaviour. Read words like, Bingo Florida and old, to a group of people and when they leave the room they walk more slowly!
All judgement is relative to something else. Have you noticed web sites generally present products from highest to lowest price? Offer someone the most expensive option and work down to what they want and, on average, they spend more than if you show them the cheapest and work up. This is called anchoring.
How you frame something affects decisions. Patients told a surgical procedure has a 15% failure rate are more likely to decide against it than if they’re told it has is an 85% success rate.
People prefer to maintain the status quo if they can, so inertia affects decision making. People actively look for things that confirm their initial assessment; they avoid loss and won’t admit to being wrong part way through.
Some people have a strong aversion to loss. This can mean they adjust forecasts down to be on the safe side, but it also means that they can prevent radical new innovations progressing if it looks like it will mean they lose existing business. Experts are often overconfident about the accuracy of their predictions and forecasts suggesting outcomes that best fit the data without taking into account real probabilities

Unaware of these biases, decisions makers can fall into serious traps. No wonder Peter Drucker estimated that only a third of business decisions were right: a third were minimally effective and the rest, outright failures. That’s a 67% chance that business decisions won’t deliver. A study on decision making effectiveness found that 40% of decisions are never fully implemented.
Which brings me to the second E.
Knowledge is Enacted. Intelligence comes from acting in the physical world. Doing things changes the way the brain works. Experience is both the source of learning and the basis for expertise, but only if you reflect on its implications. If you keep repeating the same activity without examining how well it is working, you embed errors. Practice makes permanent as my old tennis coach used to say. Research suggests that in any field, top performers devote five times longer to becoming great, than average performers devote to becoming competent. Coaching helps them examine precisely what they are doing. Do we devote that sort of time to developing expert business decision makers?

Third E coming up. Knowledge is Embedded – We are the only species that can change our environment. We create ways to store knowledge and capability. Models and principles are mental scaffolding to support better judgements. Physical artefacts augment capability to manipulate our environment – the iPhone for example. Organisations are artefacts, knowledge stores with a unique identity that will exist long after we retire. They all shape possible decisions.
The last E is perhaps the most important. Knowledge is Extended. It brings results through collectives. We are social animals. For most of our genetic history we’ve lived in tribes. So the structure of our brain evolved to thrive in communities. Communities are sources of meaning. Knowledge per se is neutral; it can be used to the benefit or detriment of society. Meaning and value are the consequences of how it is used. In principle, organisations are economic tribes who integrate knowledge into something worthwhile for society – products, services, new inventions that we value in monetary terms to facilitate exchange. Organisations should be better at turning knowledge into value because the community context guides decisions towards something meaningful for those who belong. In a shared context, transactions costs are lower; Individuals can specialise. Specialisation delivers more bang for the buck in knowledge terms than being a jack of all trades. Collectively we should make less mistakes, so be more efficient. We can learn more so we can be more innovative. We can do more to combine expertise by creating the conditions for co-operating with other experts. More people are sensing changes in the outside world, which the collective needs to adapt to, making the community more responsive to change, more competitively distinctive and better able to contribute more value to help society grow and advance. Of course, collectives are prone to groupthink. Present satisfaction can obscure future prosperity. And over the past two years we’ve seen many examples of how major shifts in collective confidence, trust , fear and greed produce bubbles, crashes and global crises in the Middle east, Iraq, and across the financial world.

Decisions are part of organisational life. Knowledge should prevent the consequences of ill- informed decisions. Sound decision-making affects the value business contributes to society, so it has to become a core strategic capability. Organisations can give people responsibility and authority, assuming they can make sensible decisions simply because they have done so in the past, but in our volatile connected world, past experience is also becoming less of a predictor of future success. Key decisions are becoming more complex (they have to take into account more variables, are surrounded by uncertainty and much of the available information is highly ambiguous ). The dilemmas involved in competing through knowledge are hard to resolve because people take opposing positions in the decision making process. So what can we do about it.
So what can we make it happen?

It’s 11 years since I began exploring how knowledge affects organisational performance. Much of what we research in the Henley KM Forum is about strategy, innovation and change. How leadership creates the conditions for performance. How mobilising knowledge can improve efficiency, reduce waste, increase innovation. All involve decisions. Our research, much of which has been assembled in our book Knowledge Works, suggests that knowledge managers have a key role to play in supporting and improving organisational decision quality. Key aspects of their role which came out in the research we did on knowledge enabled decision making include
• Identifying valuable knowledge,
• Developing and retaining expertise, and bringing the diversity of thatr know-how to bear in significant decisions.
• Introducing technology to give easier access to expertise and extend the reach of expert knowledge.
• Developing the relationship capital of the organisation by introducing ways for people to collaborate more effectively internally AND externally with customers, suppliers, competitors and other stakeholders. Then the organisation has the intelligence that it needs to respond to change.
But most importantly knowledge managers have a key role to play in developing organisational capacity to learn how to make better decision. This requires two things: Institutionalising processes like coaching and mentoring that encourage mangers and leaders to reflect honestly and carefully on their approach to decision making and its successes and failures. And helping everyone collectively to review and learn from different types of decisions, to build an appropriate repertoire of responses to the various contexts.

Perhaps it’s overpaying the tennis metaphor, but I’ll leave you with a question. Why the deuce should we be satisfied with amateurs batting decisions back and forth? Shouldn’t we make a ‘racquet’ about developing expert leaders and managers who ace the decision making process so that organisations produce more value for society?

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Getting up early to travel into London is not a favourite activity of mine. Still the compensation was my pleasure at hearing the KM community getting exercised about how to improve their strategic contribution to business performance and thinking about redefining KM as a business decision support activity. Yes, we have to pay some attention to knowledge capture and organised redistribution, but the energy invested in managing knowledge is always going to deliver more if the focus of activities is supporting a strategic imperative. Currently, given the volatility of business conditions, one imperative ought to be developing greater agility. KM is a crucial catalyst for organisational development and change, but often not positioned as such.

Another small reward for getting up early was Dave Snowden’s keynote. I’ve heard Dave speak many times, but for me this keynote really hit the spot. I’d recommend listening to the podcast. Unfortunately I am not a sci-fi officionado, so I probably missed some of the subtleties in the quotes from the Bene Gesserit, but I might be inclined now to explore the Dune saga and ponder its significance for KM. Still, the direct messages were right on the money for me.

We do expect too much of the rational, when it’s the illogical, emotional, messy human approach to decision making that is really what we need to understand. We are often too hopeful about technology solutions, too bound up in defining processes, best practices, which don’t deliver the intended outcomes.

The metaphor of a cook following a recipe vs a top chef provided a great starting point for distinguishing between the sort of results you get from a mechanistic approach vs flexible application of expertise.   I came across the KM as cooking metaphor several years ago.  

For a long time, at Henley, we have been asking programme members studying KM to create a poster that conveys the topic and captures the subtleties through a visual metaphor.  Visual metaphors get round some of the limitations of black and white words, particularly they allow people to bring richer associations into an interpretative blend (Christine and I wrote about this in a special issue of a Journal, earlier this year[1]

KM as cooking. Poster by Josef Bajada. 2008. Reproduced with permission

 Josef Bajada created this poster, which I think contains a lot of food for thought! I love the way it gives you a sense that ingredients can be combined in different ways, producing a fusion of flavours that is more than the sum of the parts. Following a recipe does not produce the same result each time (my efforts at cake making are strong evidence of that!). There’s judgement and flair involved and for the great chef years of expertise deeply embedded in their actions to create an enticing and flavoursome dish. The outcome is sensory, healthy, nourishing. All very evocative of KM in my view.

[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149 . For a copy please email me








[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149

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 In the early part of the 20th Century Arthur C Clarke said

  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  

 Business technologies seem to be advancing faster than we can grasp.  To the unsophisticated user like me, they are a bit like black magic, particularly when something goes wrong. The rate change and the system interdependencies are both very disruptive.  Still, they really do offer enormous potential to change the way we work in many positive ways.  It’s almost as good as waving a magic wand to transport you to where the action is, when you can  

  • Can access information from a cloud,
  • Are only 4 steps removed from anyone in the world now we have social computing, 
  • And can be as productive on the move as in the office

 Really getting the most from these technologies is going to mean some changes to the way we work, both as individuals and organisations.  Security is obviously a big consideration when we are so connected and we have digitised our identity.  Organisational structures will probably need changing to make best use of easy access and mobility. Decision making, learning, conversations, all key aspects of knowledge work, take on challenging new dimensions, when we rarely meet the people we work with and there is so much information available to work with.  It’s been said that drawing information from the internet is like trying to get a glass of water from Niagara Falls!  

So it’s worth thinking through how best to translate this overwhelming tide of opportunities into more productive knowledge work.   Yesterday morning,  at Unysis UK HQ,  I had the privilege of chairing a breakfast meeting designed to explore these issues (Twitter #HKMWorks). It was very thought provoking, because of three excellent speakers. 

 First up was Rob Chapman, Managing Director of Unysis UK.  In his years in the industry he’s seen lost of major shifts in technology.  The advent of the PC, Client-Server architectures, Open Source were certainly all major trends, which changed the way we worked.  But each had their own time – there was breathing space before the next one.  Today it is very different. Multiple trends are happening at the same time – trends that are influencing the way IT systems are designed and delivered.  Unisys has published its view on the convergence of 6 major trends that are reshaping the delivery of IT services to organizations.  You can read more about their predictions by downloading the briefing sheet from here .  Cyber security is the really scary issue.  Individuals are obviously concerned about identity theft, but organisations are facing attacks from sophisticated organised crime cartels, that target new financial opportunities the instant they are released.  The CIO has to become the Chief Information Security Officer too.

 It certainly made me reflect on how the risks and rewards of something that is simply an enabler, depend heavily on human intent and behaviour.  

 Next we heard from Dr Christine van Winkelen, from the Henley KM Forum.  She talked about how knowledge can be put to work more effectively by improving decision making process and joining up learning initiatives. Amongst other things improvement is very dependent on personal reflection (see an earlier entry on this blog).   One of the key messages was the importance of individuals knowing where they fit in terms of what they can do to put their knowledge to work.   They can only do this when they understand the business purpose. Then they see how they can contribute positively. Then they can align intent with behaviour.   To get that purposeful message across really requires “more communication than you can ever imagine”.  This is obviously where technology in the form of social media, can play a helpful role internally. It was good to hear that Rob finds his weekly blog is a great way to keep people in touch with senior team thinking and engage them in meaningful conversations about what matters to the business.   Christine’s slides are available here, and many of the detailed maturity models and coaching frameworks are also available on the same page.    

 The third speaker was Jim Downie. He has the delightful title of Knowledge Networker in Unisys Chief Technology Office.  Jim brought us back to the practicalities of life in organisations now.  His focus was the value of integrating the range of emerging technologies into the firm’s business processes in ways that helps individual’s do their jobs more easily. This really accelerates and enhances collaborative activity, and allows people to keep in touch wherever and whenever they need to.   Unysis are using social media as a one of a whole suite of tools for getting knowledge moving more effectively.   Starting with serendipitous conversations through instant messenger, request for help, status reviews and twitter to using Sharepoint for communities’ conversations and giving access to the latest learning about good practice from the experience of working with clients.   One thing that came across loud and clear from Jim’s session was that purposeful business activity was where Unysis started; people not technology were considered to be the key to success; simple and social were essential for engagement with the opportunities that so many disruptive technologies offer.  Jim’s slides are also available here

We had an interesting discussion with the audience around the keys to adoption of social media inside organisations. Was it age related or driven by the momentum of a trend that was too powerful to ignore?  The conclusion was that it there has to be


a powerful “what’s in it for me” factor for everyone, because that overrides the risks and disadvantages of not having face to face contact. That could be better career, improved reputation, greater recognition or simply fun and informal social involvement.  Probably it is not a monetary incentive, because that often drives the opposite behaviour.


 a “what’s in it for the business” factor.  If you are thinking of increasing the opportunities for conversation (which uses time and energy) it’s important that people have a sense of which conversations are worth having. They get that if they can relate their interactions to something that makes it easier for the organisation to achieve some beneficial purpose.  Then people work within a relevant set of boundaries.

When you can both sides get what they need, and you align the interests,  you get a win-win equation which keeps compounding.  It starts a virtuous circle of learning and change.  People get interest in being involved in sharing through social media, the experience and involvement lead to positive results, which further encourage interest and involvement.    

There are lots more questions we could have discussed

  • How technology is changing the relationship between the enterprise and the individual.
  • How mobile technologies are changing the way we work.
  • How we need to think differently about security as a consequence of technology developments.
  • How new approaches are needed to integrate information, knowledge and connections between people.
  • How learning is the basis for the organic evolution of organisations in dynamic environments.
  • How mindsets need to change to make individual and collective reflection part of how we work in knowledge-based environments.   


And there aren’t any easy answers to any of them.  Rob seemed to be suggesting that answers will emerge as people work with the technology trends.  The other message of the morning was that to realise technology’s productive potential takes a lot of deep and careful thinking about how to handle the darker side of the magic, alongside an ability to focus its magical properties on a worthwhile business purpose. This comes through thinking how to align individual human interests with mutual rewards from participating in a meaningful enterprise.        

 Time was against, and having consumed some excellent coffee and pastries everyone disappeared off to deliver some productive work in the office, or on the move.  I left thinking that it is an exciting time and we have many changes to look forward to, so the ability to adapt and learn is an even more important skill than it has ever been.

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The last blog was a bit frustrating, ending as it did without an answer to joined up decision making.   It hinted that people need to feel more connected to the consequences, but without a suggestion as to how.  

In 2009, A Demos report questioned the possibility of silver bullets, but offered some guidance for connecting the dots to address complex problems at the level of policy. The conclusion was that it is a mistake to define the problem too quickly or too narrowly.  Time to think is crucial for considering the interconnected risks; learning and adaptation in the actual decision making process is also vital to achieve a meaningful outcome for all the various stakeholders.   

 In our book, we define five factors that shape the quality of organisational decision making.  Practices for deploying expertise, technology and collaboration (internal and external) are three elements that bring rich and varied input to problem definition and exploration.  They are also the areas where knowledge management has made significant progress.  Through these channels, decision makers can frame the problem broadly and bring to bear a depth of understanding to the problem space. Relevant and diverse input is vital for well informed decisions.  Organisational learning is the fourth factor. This encourages collective evaluation of decision outcomes and processes. The critical relationship between learning, adaptation and agility means many firms give this attention, through techniques like after action reviews.   Yet, at root, the seeds of organisational learning lie in individual decision makers learning how to improve their personal practice.

Learning spirals and builds in repeated phases. Spiral text courtesy of Inkscape

The personal learning process is often explained as a four phase cycle of experience, reflection, mentally organising thoughts into meaningful concepts followed by trial actions to test existing understanding. This produces new experience on which to reflect and so it goes on.   Sad to say, practitioners in the KM Forum felt strongly that in the rush and pressure of high-paced business activities, reflection is the one thing that is often neglected.   Action is usually the priority.   Experience may be valued, but reflection gets squeezed out as a luxury. There is not enough time to think.    In my experience, in programmes of post graduate learning, reflection is always something that needs to be encouraged. Often programme members find it harder than absorbing theory or doing things.   Perhaps that’s because it can be uncomfortable to reflect on mistakes, perhaps because it feels more productive to be doing something rather than thinking. But more likely it seems a nebulous activity that feels less productive; some even think of it as time wasting.  In reality it is crucial to both relating new knowledge to past experience, changing mindsets, embedding understanding and imagining how to do things better.   All the after action reviews in the world won’t change behaviour unless individuals spend time reflecting on the meaning for them personally.   Jennifer Moon  calls it mental housekeeping.  The process of re-organising what we know to accommodate new input and experience.  Without it we don’t modify our practice, but we go around and around the learning cycle, spinning our wheels repeating the same mistakes without improving.  And practice makes permanent, as my old tennis coach used to say. Practice only makes perfect if we are open to thinking about how we need to adapt and change.  The problem is often management knowledge is tacit.  If something is hard to express, it’s going to be even harder to modify. Without reflection, all sorts of emotional filters, implicit sense-making, assumptions and judgements remain unexamined.  Reflection is a discipline you can explore in this short slide show.

 As Chris Collison points out it doesn’t really take much time. You can do it on an aircraft in that enforced break from the online buzz created by the need to switch off all electronic equipment.  Peer assists, in and after action reviews are collective versions of these learning principles. It’s really about questioning the known.  The advantage is that practice can ‘make deeper and better considered knowledge available” (Moon 2010).  

Journal writing is a well trodden route for reflecting.   The list of benefits is long.  It is a way of bringing into consciousness some of the tacit mental connections.  Getting thoughts down, they are more readily available for examination.    More than just recording experience, writing is an opportunity to be critical of one’s own thinking and approach to learning; it can increase personal ownership as the writer works with the meaning of what they write. Over the years, many people have argued that reflection improves problem solving skills, increases creativity, is therapeutic, helps behavioural change, and gives the writer a way to understand their own view of the world and get a sense of who they are becoming in the process of learning.   Writing is a different means of expression to speech and engages different emotions and parts of the brain.    Overall it has potential for helping people feel more connected to the consequences of their decisions.  

The modern day equivalent of journal writing is the blog.   Sadly, of all the social media tools it seems to be the least appreciated and used.   Of course there are risks with open publication and business decision makers are rightly nervous of over exposure.  But used judiciously, leadership blogs can offer a way for decision maker to simultaneously reflect on decisions before, during and after, and at the same time engage key stakeholders, gauge their views and opinions and influence their thinking.  This might prevent problems being defined too narrowly or too quickly leading to poor decisions and bad outcomes.    

Just a reflection!

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On Tuesday evening, I went to the Savoy.  Sounds impressive, and indeed  when you walk through the revolving doors it’s like entering another world. 

What I found more beguiling, though, was the conversation .  Hilary Austen, author of the “Artistry Unleashed. A guide to pursuing great performance in work and life.”  Tom Hulme, Design Director of IDEO, Daniel Weil of Pentagram, and Tyler Brûlé. Editor in Chief of Monocle were part of a penal discussion led by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rottman Business School and author of “The Opposable Mind”.

The discussion was largely about the limitations of an education that focuses on analysis, quantitative measures and facts, whilst neglecting or undervaluing the essential aspects of development associated with the creative arts and design.   Creative pursuits apparently develop the capacity the think and reason differently – to consider the world a more integrated, connected way, with deeper insight and more exploratorion of alternative perspectives.

At the heart of the argument is the premise that creative people focus on qualities rather than quantities, sharpen their sensitivity to sensory input rather than symbols, pay attention to nuances and attitudes rather than numbers.      

A world of ambiguity whicever way you look at it. (view of the world courtesy of Nasa)

It is not that we should abandon the quantitative.  It’s more a question of tempering a deeply imbued obsession with measurement to allow for  richer  perceptions and more evocative contextual understanding. If we accept that ambiguity and volatility are incontravertible qualities of modern business activity, then  we start to see the limits of quantitative evaluation. It’s often retrospective; it frequently over simplifies; outliers and anomalies tend to be ignored in statistical patterns; people become transactional in their drive to make the numbers, they are not motivated by mastery of their medium.    

 It seemed to me that the distinction between work and artistry lies in the beginning and end point of Austen’s model of a personal knowledge system:- the artist’s identity and motivation (crucially labelled Directional knowledge).  These profoundly personal qualities are intimately linked to the artists Conceptual knowledge (that is their understanding of the medium in which they work) and this is both informed by and guides their skill and awareness developed through practice and experience ( Experiential knowledge).   Deep experience of playing with qualities and creating both shape the way an artist views the world and shapes their perception of their own identity.

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, cooks, experience an intense sensory immersion in their work. Perseverance in the face of failure to meet their own personal standards is an unavoidable part of the creative journey.   The next creative act draws forth something that has to build from yet develop and improve on previous success.   Perhaps people in professions feel the same intensely personal identification with what they do,  but can managers and operatives?  If you are an intermediary in the organisng process, disconnected from the end product, if  the  primary source of feedback comes through quantitative measurement  and the primary incentives are the carrots and sticks implicit in performance management systems,  there is but a weak connection between effort and outcome. Then it’s easy to divorce one’s identity from the end result.   We’ve seen the consequences of that in all the managerial failures in companies like Enron and Tyco and the recent cascade of bank failures.

Unleashing artistry seems to me to be important considerations in the design of leadership development programmes and the process of talent management.   Future leaders, sensitised to qualitative input as well as quantitative evidence are likely to make better informed and more rounded decisions, create a culture that is more conducive to knowledge sharing, and be able to read the strategic landscape more perceptively.  One might hope that they would be less likely to take narrow, singular perspectives, follow formulae that worked historically, and blinker themselves  to the weak signals that presage major change.  

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Informed decisions come from listening to lots of different points of view. At least that’s what we are told. Social media would seem to offer an ideal opportunity to extend the connections and gain a richer perspective. But human behaviour is such that people frequently don’t take advantage of the opportunity.  It seems we hate contradictions. Because, we all prefer a sense of belonging we are disturbed by difference.   According to Margaret Heffernan, this tendency produces wilful blindness. We connect to people with similar views.   So we follow blogs we agree with, we pick up on the tweets that resonate, and we surround ourselves with people like ourselves, who we feel most comfortable with.  It’s the best way to avoid conflict, and our brains don’t like conflict. Consequently, however much contradictory information is out there, (and with the range and reach of the internet, there is certainly plenty) it’s more natural to seek out those who confirm our own beliefs.  We instinctively blind ourselves to contradictory evidence, which can signal a crucial turning point for our decisions.     

Margaret’s book explains why we become ‘deliberately’ blind.  If being different means that we risk ostracism, we’re more likely to comply with the majority view or follow the rules despite the consequences.  The sub-prime mortgage catastrophe was a perfect example. Individually lots of people knew it was mad to keep selling mortgages to people who could not afford it, on the grounds that prices would always go up. But once it started, no-one dared stand out and be the ‘nay-sayer’.  It was easier both individually and corporately to justify risky financial investments by thinking others were doing it so they must know what they were doing, or by arguing that it would be stupid not to get on the bandwagon and miss a quick profit. So the whole fiasco mushroomed.  Interestingly the more competitive the environment got, the more people conformed and followed like lemmings over the cliff.  Belonging matters more than reason.    

Experiments show that people who feel excluded often feel their life is less meaningful.  Meaning comes from following some purpose that is bigger than ourselves, but the bigger it becomes the more disconnected we become from an empathetic response to individuals and personal consequences.  Our moral and ethical compass also fails.  Experiments also show that people will quickly develop faulty reasoning simply to avoid the distress of ‘dissonant data’; they may even abandon their own humanity and act cruelly in order not to be the odd one out. 

Poor decisions like the Iraq War, Enron, the failure of the music, the film and the TV industry to recognise the threat from free sharing, all these fiascos and more can be attributed in some way to wilful blindness.

If it is so hard to acknowledge knowledge that jars with established patterns of understanding, or to go against the grain of the group, what does this mean for strategic decision making? The risk is that it will always tend towards conformity, the norm, the way the rest of the industry is operating, and the courage to be contradict the trend will be hard to translate into concrete innovations.

 According to Heffernan, it is those who are deeply wedded to successful ways of working and powerful positions, who most need to be shaken by the ‘unfettered exploration of the ‘unvarnished truth’  They need  to be exposed  to those who challenge authority, and speak the inconvenient truths; encouraged to really listen to the whistleblowers and to empathise with the powerless.    Her suggestion is to introduce a thinking partner. Someone to think alongside the decision maker, who will encourage critical thinking, play devil’s advocate,  and deliberately provide the contradictory evidence that create dissonance which must be resolved to the satisfaction of all. Contradictory  mechanisms have to be embedded  into the structural capital of the organisation. The Indian company, Tata, capture this imperative in a corporate motto ‘question the unquestionable’.   Carol Vallone CEO of WebCT would insist that experts changed roles when contributing to strategy debates so that they were forced to take a different perspective. Large organisations tend to become insulated from critical dissent through hierarchies. The manufacturing giant, W. L Gore removes the insulation by a policy that no business unit can be larger than 100 people; difference is institutionalised through a modular structure that is small enough for people to feel that they can belong to and still have a voice.  At the Henley KM Forum, we embody the tension between theory and practice in our research projects, by having two project co-champions – An academic and a practitioner.  Some businesses adopt a similar organising principles. They work out which core dilemmas have the most influence on business performance, then deliberately give peers  shared responsibility  for the apparently contradictory requirements underpinning the tension, and give them shared targets, so that they are motivated to give each other mutual support.  The risk of course is that this produces stalemate or wastes time in much argument, but the real benefit is in appreciating how conflict can contribute to better decisions and not being blindsided by complacency and wilful ignorance of really important realities.

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