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A successful failure?

Following on from yesterday’s musing, I was further reminded of the title of Tim Harford’s book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure, when I visited the National Space Museum in Leicester and saw this picture.

Apollo 13 deemed a successful failure

The Apollo 13 mission was considered a successful failure in the overall timeline of Space Exploration.  There certainly were some hard lessons earned when the three astronauts said “Houston we have a problem!”  Yet the spirit of innovation and determination that got these men home did not endure as NASA changed its orientation from space exploration to space exploitation.  With the developments of the space shuttle and the space station, the notion of what space flight meant changed from novel and exploratory to routine and repeatable.  What people identified as NASA’s purpose changed with it. These collective assumptions resulted in disaster when Columbia lost a tile on take-off and blew up on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

The findings of the inquiry into the Columbia disaster concluded that despite the successful failure of Apollo 13 and despite the O ring disaster that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, when the tiles fell off on this Columbia mission, organisational learning failed.   One could argue that NASA’s change of identity contributed to a change in focus by all the members of the team.  An analysis of the leadership behaviours exhibited by the mission managers could lead you to conclude, that individuals did not create conducive conditions for listening and learning, yet the inquiry did not blame any one person. They considered it a systemic failure.  Yet all the necessary knowledge sharing and learning processes were well established and designed to surface the different perspectives on the problem. Different teams with different expertise and responsibilities reported into the mission manager on a regular basis, but somehow the different levels of concern were sublimated in the complexity of all the day to day management of this particular shuttle mission and the pressures to keep up with the schedule of future shuttle missions.

In fact the collective learning dynamics in any system can be inherently myopic.  As we are thinking a lot about organisational learning at the Henley KM forum conference, I thought it would be worth revisiting this classic article by Levinthal and March. They identify three sources of myopia.

When faced with complexity, unless we deliberately and intelligently deal with the problems of uncertainty, conflict and ambiguity, learning in organisations will tend to

  1.  Ignore the long run and privilege what works in the short term; by simplifying and specialising we assure short term survival, yet the very learning we gain can be a constraint when external conditions change. It may even compromise the organisation’s ability to adapt because distinctive competencies create traps by defining where it can exert influence or decreasing awareness of the need for adaptation
  2. Neglect the big picture; for example components in the system fight for survival but their success may not help the system as a whole thrive. Components could be organisations in an economy or competing projects within an organisation. The health of the system depends on collective fitness, and fitness means adaptability.  Overall the economic returns to knowledge are higher, the higher the knowledge development activity of the components. The more generative the system conditions the more it attracts further knowledge generating activity in a self re-enforcing spiral. Conversely, the more sparsely distributed  innovation is, the more likely that knowledge seeking will be lower; improvements that only refine existing knowledge ultimately become less valuable and the organisation stagnates because it loses the capability to search and the confidence to manage the risk. We also tend to ignore distant events in favour of nearer lessons and experience.
  3. Overlook failures. Organisation learning is naturally biased towards what worked in the past. The successes from past learning generate confidence in dealing with particular situations, so they become self confirming. But this may be a poor predictor of future success when dealing with rare events.  People are more likely to think it was ability that produced success but luck which produced single failures.   It is only persistent failures that lead us to revise our assessment of risk; persistent successes tend to mean we underestimate risk.

Those of you who came to the KM Forum day, that Mike Palmer ran, will remember we  explored the knowledge implications of the Columbia disaster. Perhaps you recognise examples of all three types of blinker in NASA’s organisational learning system. The strongest elements for me were the fact that NASA started to think of the Shuttle as a routine transport between earth and space. They simplified and specialised which privileged the short term mission management but ignored the fact that in larger scheme of things NASA were still working with many unknowns that they had never experienced in the past. Over time they lost the exploratory, innovative mindset that was the hall mark of the Apollo missions. Having completed many transport missions to space and back, gave them confidence in their routines, so they overlooked the lessons to be learned from the failure of Challenger. They had also seen tiles fall off the space shuttle before without the Shuttle breaking up on re-entry, so past success led them to categorise this incident as an ‘in family’ problem rather than a serious anomaly that needed more attention.  Overconfidence in past learning and knowledge meant they under estimated the risk.

So what’s the lesson here?   Success often comes from failure, but unless leaders keep in mind and offset the traps that cause myopia, over time lessons learned can also become lessons lost.  In the long term, the knock on effect of myopia is that exploration and risk taking is harder to sustain and organisation capacity to adapt to unfamiliar and unpredictable events is compromised.   The Levinthal and March article suggests it is important to offset myopic tendencies with a compensating increase in resources to encourage exploration. Incentives, structures, managing beliefs and perceptions about risk and internally selection of mavericks or people who have failed in the past are typical levers to balance the fact that organisational learning naturally tends to be biased towards repeating past successes and neglecting future risks.

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Lessons Earned?

I love this title, which is from Chris Collison’ssession at the Henley KM Forum conference.   It reminds me of an anecdote I heard a little while back about a very well known organisation that I won’t name and shame. They were frustrated because they had all the KM good practices under the sun, but still organisational learning wasn’t really happening as well as they hoped.  It was while listening to a presentation about knowledge work that the light bulb came on.  For all the effort they invested in collecting lessons learned, for all the fact that collection and dissemination was so deeply embedded into organisational routines, did they ever go back and look at what had changed as a result, did they ever deliberately drive through the consequences of these lessons into changes that improved results, or was it just a matter of serendipity that the lessons learned translated into lessons earned?  Lessons learned from someone else don’t have the same impact as lessons earned for yourself.  I suppose it’s the reality of the human condition.

Learn or teach? Who cares about your lessons?

Someone telling us from their experience what to avoid, has less impact that learning from our own experience.   We always say that in leadership development, 70% of the learning comes from experience, not from education and training.  Yet even experience doesn’t always make the lesson stick.  For example, if I shine this light back on myself as a parent, the experience of being hugely irritated and probably rudely irreverent in the face of my parent’s advice didn’t teach me enough of a lesson.  l know I knew much better. After all they didn’t understand the modern world.  Yet nowadays, I still find myself assuming my experience would be a helpful guide for son, who is 27 now and has had plenty of experience of his own! I haven’t learned and nor has he. So why bother?  I suppose if we care we want to share and prevent someone having to relive our own painful experiences. The most enduring lessons are often earned through personal failure.  But, collectively, as Tim Harford tells it in his book Adapt Why success always starts with failure, however much we pool our lessons earned and assemble many different experts for advice, when it comes down to it, the world we inhabit is too complex and constantly changing for us to be able to analyse it and find simple and accurate solutions to the problems we face.

So what can we do? Do we simply have to recognise that change emerges as a result of the collective set of adaptations over which we have no control, so our job in the organisation is simply to ensure that failure is survivable?  Well yes apparently, that’s what co-evolution is all about. We find our niche, thrive for a while, things change as a result of our collective contribution to conditions and either we adapt or become redundant.   But in organisation life that would make the KM task simply one of risk management.   Tim has other useful principles too, and I won’t steal his thunder here, because you need to read the book or come to the conference to hear what he has to say.  What I can say though is I learned a lesson from thinking about earning learning. For me and I imagine for many with years of experience, the fact that they know something well, doesn’t mean it translates into behaviour. I guess the impact of the failure must be stronger than the caring about what you know in order for if it to act as a stimulus to personal change. On a larger scale, history may identify some useful patterns, but its easy to be blind to the lessons they offer if they feel quite distant from your own reality.

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.

Better relationships and more productive energy strengthen vital bonds of community. Our opening Key Note speaker, Hubert Saint-Onge is a big advocate of community as the source of speed, innovation and agility, so we’ll learn more about the challenges of building community on the 29th March. But what does it mean?

Community is not another word for communities, which are a core part of any KM toolkit. Of course they are related, but the distinction is important. Business enthusiasm for communities is strong because they are spaces for people with a shared passion or concern to get together to share what they know, learn and improve. This fairly comprehensive summary of their origin, purpose and value, boils down to the fact that communities are social situations for collective learning but the important point is that learning is around a common knowledge domain. Community is about collective being. It is about how individuals find a collective identity despite their differences. That’s much harder, but also much more important. Community provides that sense of connectedness and belonging, which is so often missing in our fragmented, hectic and mobile world. Sounds a bit new age? The hard business value of community is that it facilitates knowledge combination and integration, which is the primary source of innovation.

Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

Creating new spaces for community building

Nonaka warned us 12 years ago that of the importance of creating suitable spaces for knowledge combinations in the knowledge creating company. He called them ‘Ba’ spaces.

They don’t have to be physical spaces, they can be virtual, but in reality they more like a sort of places with different energies that support various alternative knowledge sharing priorities.

Nonaka suggested that the process of creation is a spiral of movement between different spaces:-

a continuous, self-transcending process through which one transcends the boundary of the old self into a new self by acquiring a new context, a new view of the world, and new knowledge. In short, it is a journey “from being to becoming”. One also transcends the boundary between self and other, as knowledge is created through the interactions amongst individuals or between individuals and their environment.’

The beautiful new City of Arts and Sciences  built in the old Spanish city of Valencia is a wonder of different sorts of spaces for knowledge sharing. The architecture is inspiring, and the spaces all have a different feel to them.  One example is shown above.  There is also an Agora,  a modern version of the ancient Greek market place for knowledge sharing and community building. For the Greeks, the Agora was a place for open debate and discussion to further knowledge.

A modern version of the Agora in Valencia

You can’t get to community by sublimating difference; that just pushes negative energy underground to create wasteful tension in relationships and emotional stress on the individual.   Community comes when people identify meaningful connections that surmount their differences; they also have to discover how to bridge the self defining knowledge production systems that evolve as people develop deep specialist knowledge either in community or through education, training and development. In 2011 one of the KM Forum research projects considered this topic. What it is about deep expertise that divides intelligent people. Things like tacit assumptions about what knowledge to value; how we come to know what we know establishes deeply held biases for either objective or subjective knowledge: The language of specialisms which has deep resonance within communities, but is often meaningless outside the close knit bonds of expertise, which have their own epistemic cultures, otherwise known as knowledge production systems. The project then went on to consider how KM techniques could bridge some of the barriers to knowledge sharing created by assumptions about objective and subjective knowledge which are fundamental in different epistemic cultures . Members of the Forum have the guidance document we produced, but anyone who comes along to our the Henley ‘Knowledge Market’  will receive a copy as part of the conference proceedings.

It makes your hair stand on end

As a species we tend to be quite sensitive to subtle signals that surround us. At the June Forum Meeting many of us heard Bernd Vogel talk about organisational energy. He was tackling the issue of how collective emotions affect the energy of groups, communities and organisations. Obviously energy is going to affect the momentum of learning and change activities. If you missed Bernd’s session you can listen to Bernd talk about how organisations can assess the predominant energy type, and read about the strategies that you can adopt to help change them.

What struck me is how challenging it could be to both sense and influence energy levels in distributed organisational settings. How can you notice the signals of corrosive energy when the people you are working with, are on the move, have a home office or maybe even sit on a different continent, and perhaps have different cultural responses? We may have to wait for the next phase of Bernd’s research to dig up some new virtual energy fields.

But for now there are some pointers. Technology is helpful in maintaining the communication channels, but it doesn’t give us a real sense of what goes on behind the scenes in networks, on the move and when there is no focal point of belonging. Peter Thompson will be talking about the importance of changing the way we co-ordinate, inspire and organise in the new world of work on the 29th February at the KM Forum conference. In his recent book Future Work with Alison Maitland, they talk to Gary Kildare the global VP of HR at IBM. Gary is faced with this very problem. He talks about the fact that however technically capable someone is, the focus on people is important ‘ or it will hold you back as a leader.’

Relationships and a heightened sensitivity to the collective feelings make a difference to what anyone can achieve. But as Gary says,

‘It can take longer to build trusting relationships because you don’t always have face-face contact with people. Leaders and managers must take time to understand how individuals are performing if they don’t get to observe the directly every day in an office setting. It’s about setting very clear goals and objectives and expectations and measuring the outcome.’

Communication is an obvious priority, but not all one way. There’s going to have to be a lot of listening too, even though the richness of conversational cues is depleted in conference calls, and the disaffected can hide easily in virtual meetings. According to Julia Kotlarsky, what companies like SAP and Le Croy do is try to make people can overcome their perceptions of distance and the constraints imposed by time and being virtual. Leaders pay extra attention to helping team members sharpen their knowledge of the channels, the topic relevance, their co-participants, and what the problem means to the organisation.

What particularly interested me about Gary at IBM was his concern for setting a schedule of conference calls well in advance and really sticking to it. The commitment to the routine communicates something without words. People respond to the rhythm of activities: the pattern makes them feel more included. Can we learn from that sense of rhythm and pattern in finding ways to embed KM activities? Where else can we develop subtle ways of communicating to maintain energy and momentum for change? Visual imagery and metaphorical language can be one way of encouraging emotional connections. I remember interviewing someone for KM forum research project about better knowledge sharing across organisational boundaries (Download Knowledge in Action series 8 to learn more). He recommended creating a project brand, a logo that people feel captures what an inter-organisational project team is all about. It creates a sense of belonging to something. Internally too I’ve heard leaders talk about creating a logo for their teams. Associating with an icon that represents something with positive associations can re-enforce an emotional connection as all advertisers know. We love the nature and animal pictures on the front of the Knowledge in Action series for that very reason.

Share with us your ideas for creating positive emotional energy in distributed organisations by commenting on this blog. The outcome may help us co-create a learning culture, which is another of the leadership practices that we will be talking about at the conference, when we share the findings of our research project on developing leadership agility to sustain the knowledgeable organisation.

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.

Leap for KM

Leap for KM

In good KM fashion, I’m going to steal with pride. I want to adapt an idea I heard on Radio 4’s PM programme on Monday.  Eddie Mair has launched a ‘Leap for PM’ initiative. Listeners were asked share and commit to doing something with the extra day that leap year offers. The Henley KM forum Conference starts on the 29th February this year, so fortuitously you can spend it advancing your insights about organisational learning, without losing any of your normal working year in the office!

So, since you have all that extra time, I thought it would be good to start a Leap for KM initiative. With that extra day in 2012, what knowledge and learning challenge could you commit to which would help you do more with less.

2012 is a fascinating year As well as the Queens Jubilee and the London Olympics, it’s also the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens birth. As Mr Mickawber said in David Copperfield

“Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Make a commitment to complete what you have been putting off, or plan to do to use the extra day to leap forward in your KM activities, by commenting on this blog, and we’ll see what a difference collective inspiration can make.

I’m going to make a commitment to blog about conference related themes between now and the 29th, rather than living with my blogger’s guilt, for not sharing enough of what I am learning.

By the way if you want to hear what PM listeners are planning, for the next few days only you can listen again to the episode on Monday 6th at 5pm. The item is 26.41 minutes into the programme.