Paths to more effective knowledge work

There is no curriculum on how to be an effective knowledge worker although we live in a world dominated by knowledge work. We identify ourselves as knowledge workers. But what comes after that?

Peter Drucker observed that the defining characteristic of knowledge work and knowledge workers is that the first question is “what is the task?” (see Knowledge-Worker Productivity). In manual work, the task is a given. It is defined in advance of hiring the worker and its various inputs, outputs, and structures define who the appropriate worker is for each task.

All knowledge work begins with the question of what is it that I am expected to do. Nothing in conventional education or conventional organizational thinking prepares us to deal with this question. This goes well beyond questions of self-management or self organizing systems. It implies that we each have responsibility as both designers and executors of our work. It is not sufficient to understand the ins and outs of Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Word. If we have some responsibility for defining what the task is, then we have some responsibility to understand why the task is relevant and how it fits into the broader picture.

This complicates our lives as both individual knowledge workers and as members of larger organizations. This obsoletes conventional job descriptions. Every job now has components of project management, of strategic thinking, of analytic thinking, and design creativity. What does this imply for how we educate and develop ourselves to be effective as knowledge workers? Note that I’ve focused this question on our individual responsibilities. That leaves another set of questions for the educational institutions and training organizations that lay claim to preparing us for the environment in which we work.

Practice and Performance

Cpl. Derek McGee, USMC MEU15 TRAP 2013

How do you strike an effective balance between practice and performance? In many realms we draw a distinction between performing and preparing to perform. Actors and musicians rehearse. Athletes practice. Soldiers train before they fight.

In other, equally demanding, realms the boundary is fuzzy; at times non-existent. Where does a sales rep or project manager practice? Where does a brand manager practice market segmentation? When does an investment banker practice designing a deal?

The notion of an apprentice observing and mimicking a master is one proven model that blends practice and performance. What troubles me is that this model works best when it is explicit. There needs to be some recognition that some performance settings are about both performance and practice; some fraction of your focus and attention needs to be tuned to learning.

My sense is that we have abandoned the notion of practice built into apprenticeship and favor performance exclusively. If we substitute performance only in place of practice and performance, do we abandon the possibility of achieving peak performance? How do we recognize situations that call for effective apprenticeship models? How do we design organizations so that they meet their performance goals and provide the necessary practice opportunities so that tomorrow’s organization can perform as well or better than today’s?

DIY Learning Advice from Jay Cross


JayCross-real-cover.jpgJay Cross is at it once again. He’s launched the Real Learning Project, an exploration of DIY learning in today’s organizational environment. Here’s his description of the effort:

The Real Learning Project helps people who are taking their professional development into their own hands and shows them how to learn to learn.

My new book, Real Learning is for all those people we’ve made responsible for their own learning. This is the missing manual.

Real Learning explains self-assessment, setting goals, dealing with feeds and flows, improving retention, curation, working out loud, social learning, and more. Each technique is backed with a practical exercise.

Real Learning reveals how to:

• Learn from experience

• Take advantage of the latest findings from neuroscience

• Save time by accelerating how you learn

• Remember things faster, better, deeper

• Adopt sound learning practices as lifelong habits

• Form a sustainable, nurturing community

• Use shortcuts, cheatsheets, and rules of thumb

Real Learning is about how to learn for yourself. No classrooms. No instructors. No training department. Little in the way of theory. Just stuff that works.  (Although learning with your team is encouraged,)

The core focus is experiential learning and tacit knowledge. It’s learning to be all you can be rather than amassing more content.

This matters for two reasons. One, DIY learning is something we are all going to have to get better at. Organizations won’t have the time or the resources to invest in time-consuming formal training efforts. But the need to learn new things will only continue to increase. Two, Jay is one of the key people thinking about this problem in organizational contexts.

There are a number of resources to take advantage of with this effort:

The Real Learning Website

The Google Plus Community

• A blog that Jay describes as a Plog—A personal progress blog

I’ve purchased the e-book version of the book in its present beta form and hope to follow along and contribute as it evolves.

Insights Into Innovation: Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One”

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

Peter Thiel’s Zero to One claims to be about startups, but that is too narrow a view of its value. Thiel explores the challenges of creating the risky new in an environment that prefers safe repetition. Startups are the favored example in today’s entrepreneurial environment, but we can all benefit if organizations learn to actually do the innovation they profess in their PR.

Zero to One is a book that bears rereading; there are insights throughout that are crisply expressed and presume that the reader is willing to think. I was hooked early on with this observation in the preface:

The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

One of the values of the book is the focus on the difference between creating something new—going from zero to 1—and imitating or scaling an idea after it has been dreamt up. The U.S. is probably better than almost anywhere else at rewarding true innovation, yet most of us prefer the safety of copying someone else’s success.

One of the arguments Thiel develops is teasing apart whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about the future from our views about whether that future is “definite” or “indefinite.” Can we control what emerges tomorrow by what we do today? Or, are we at the mercy of a random and unknowable future? There’s an important insight here about striking a good (as opposed to the “right”) balance between having a definite perspective and adapting to new information as it becomes available. It isn’t a binary choice; like all important leadership challenges it’s about balance and perspective.

There is value in nearly every section of this book. Here, for example, is a list of seven questions that let you evaluate an idea for its entrepreneurial potential:

  1. The Engineering Question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question: Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Elsewhere, you will benefit from Thiel’s musings on why you would just as soon avoid competition and opportunities to disrupt existing markets. Throughout Zero to One, Thiel hammers and chips at why the rules for going from one to many, which dominate conventional MBA programs and wisdom, are, at best, irrelevant and, more likely, misleading if you focus instead on creating something new.

If you’ve managed to create a billion dollars of value, you’re pretty much guaranteed a book contract. Whether you have anything useful to share in that book is a separate question. Thiel’s value creation skills extend to intellectual as well as financial capital. He’s clearly reflected on his experiences in a systematic way and we benefit.

Two spaces or one; change and persistence

Selectric-ElementI learned to type before I learned to drive; now nearly 50 years ago. I was taught that you put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Eventually, I left typewriters behind and began to write with text editors and word processors. I learned a little bit about proportional fonts and typesetting and, at some point in the somewhat less distant past switched over to using a single space.

This morning, i came across the following link in my Facebook newsfeed – Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. – posted by Andy McAfee. It’s an old item and it’s an old controversy (for example, see Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)).

What I find interesting about this is what it reveals about change and habits. The very first comment in response to Andy’s post was from someone who had also learned to type a long time ago. In their view, the controversy was a silly waste of time and they intended to happily continue to insert two spaces until the end of time. I’m sure that if I went back to the thread. someone else will have weighed in otherwise. There will be yet another impassioned argument over a convention. How do you get new knowledge into an established system of practice? How do you get from new knowledge to new practice?

We are now three hundred years or so past the Enlightenment. How long do you think it will be before reason triumphs over tradition?


The importance of forgetting to creativity and innovation

Science fiction author Spider Robinson won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story with Melancholy Elephants. It’s a prescient take on an essential tension between creativity and commerce. Still worth reading. More worth contemplating.

Robinson explores where the boundaries of creativity might lie and what those boundaries might imply. There are tradeoffs to be made between the needs of artists and the interests of art as a whole. Those tradeoffs have artistic and economic consequences and striking the balance is by no means as self-evident as they might appear. Here’s the nub of his argument in his own words:

“I think it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans.   We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity.”  

For millions of years we looked at the ocean and said, ‘That is infinite.   It will accept our garbage and waste forever.’   We looked at the sky and said, ‘That is infinite: it will hold an infinite amount of smoke.’   We like the idea of infinity.   A problem with infinity in it is easily solved.   How long can you pollute a planet infinitely large?   Easy: forever.   Stop thinking.  

”Then one day there are so many of us that the planet no longer seems infinitely large.  

The ultimate bottleneck is this: that we have only five senses with which to apprehend art, and that is a finite number.

“Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create.   In fact they do nothing of the sort.   They discover.   Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system.   For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe–and telling ourselves that we ‘created’ them.   To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility.   As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators.”  

Go read the whole thing. It won’t take you long, But it will leave you thinking.

Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.

Saving Lives with Systems Thinking – Atul Gawande and the 2014 Reith Lectures

A three-year old drowning victim is alive and thriving today because someone in Switzerland cares about systems. Atul Gawande, surgeon, polymath, and author of The Checklist Manifesto, recounts the tale as the second of four BBC 2014 Reith Lectures on the future of medicine. The podcast of “The Century of the System” is well worth 40 minutes of your time. 

Gawande’s central point is that the power of design, coordination, and collaboration trumps heroics. This is so terribly hard to pull off because it runs against the stories of heroics that so capture our imagination and our egos. How we get to good designs in a world that honors heroes is the challenge. 

Thirteen years

Still holding down this outpost on the web. My life and the world seem to have gotten more complex over that interval. When I started this, Facebook, Twitter, etc. did not exist. A few pioneers like Dave Winer seemed to have it well in hand and I felt as though I was late to the game. Guess that was a bit naive. 

This has been a source of continuing learning and a entree to a richer network than I would have ever imagined. More than reason enough to keep the experiment running.