Effective knowledge work is improv

Shirt PocketIt was essentially a casting call. I was interviewing retired and semi-retired executives to fill a role in a training simulation we were building. We needed someone to play the part of the client CEO and someone had introduced me to Scott. Scott was a central casting silver fox, tanned from a recent visit to Florida.

I don’t know why I noticed it, but Scott was wearing a custom made shirt and the shirt had no pockets. I remarked on the missing pocket and Scott’s response sticks with me two decades later. Here was his logic, ”My job is to delegate work to my direct reports. If I have a pocket someone will want to hand the work back to me in the form of a question or a task. Without a pocket, there’s no place to put a note and no way for that to happen.”

That was a 20th Century view of management and work. Just as well that Scott was about to retire. But the mindset persists; there is work and there is management.

Peter Drucker invented the term knowledge worker sometime around 1959—just another indicator of his prescience. We accept that we live in a knowledge economy but grapple with what it means to be knowledge workers. Organizations remain slow to accept all the implications of that line of thought. At the core, the distinction between worker and manager is disappearing. There may still be power dynamics, but you can’t readily discern who is working and who is managing by observing the tasks they carry out.

We are all struggling to make sense of the changing nature of work. There are grand policy level analyses on the implications for organizations, industries, and nation states. At the other extreme, there is an endless supply of tactical advice and tools for tackling very specific problems.

And, there is the middle where we spend our days trying to muddle through.

Maybe it was the time I spent in the wings at the boundary between what you see on stage and what goes on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. It gave me roots in that middle space. I chose to stay there, building connections between vision and execution. That began deeply immersed in designing and building technology and information systems to answer particular management questions about aluminum cans, soft drinks, industrial paints, or construction equipment.

Working in the technology space led to questions about business and organization that I couldn’t answer. That led me back to school several times and into multiple organizations in search of more insight. The schools gave me pieces of parchment attesting to my mastery of subjects they deemed worthy; chiefly strategy, information systems, and organizational design. The organizations I worked for and created put that knowledge to practical tests and frequently reminded me that parchment and mastery aren’t well correlated.

This has played out as we’ve all grown hardened, if not accustomed, to a world of accelerating change. The theatrical metaphor that helps me grasp what this change entails is a shift from scripts to improv. In a script world, we grow by adding to our repertoire of scripts we can call into play. In an improv world, we grow by learning to see patterns that we can play with and by collaborating with other players to create magic in the moment.

We always start in the middle

Glinda Wizard of Oz“It’s always best to start at the beginning.”
Glinda, The Good Witch of the South, The Wizard of Oz

Remember, Glinda isn’t real; nor is the opportunity to start at the beginning. We always start in the middle.

We’re better served thinking like MacGyver. Step 0 should always be to empty your pockets and look around. What do you have to work with?

Pretending to take out a clean sheet of paper is well-meaning but ultimately misleading. The goal of that clean sheet is to avoid ending up with little tweaks squeezed into “the way we do things around here.”  The only way to achieve that goal, however, is to build a comprehensive picture of the “the way we do things around here” together with an understanding of why.

That clean sheet of paper is one of those business cliches that sounds wise, yet conceals more than it reveals. The point of the clean sheet is to eliminate assumptions that no longer serve their purpose. But you can’t surface those assumptions without understanding the existing environment.

It isn’t the assumptions you see that cause problems, it’s the assumptions you miss. Better to have a fully marked up sheet of where you are actually starting and know what obstacles need to be addressed than to trip over something hiding behind the whiteness.

Note Taking–by hand or by keyboard?

handwritten notesI’ve been thinking a lot about notes lately.

That led me into a stream of research and editorializing about the tradeoffs between taking notes on paper vs. at a keyboard.

The academic research seems to have started with:

Which generated various editorializing in the general press:

Predictably, the consensus appears to be a definite “it depends.”  This debate presumes that there is a correct technology choice independent of any other consideration. As soon as you phrase it that way, the question reveals itself to be nonsensical. You have to have the “it depends” conversation.

The technology choice–pen in hand or fingers poised over keyboard–has to flow from an understanding of goals and objectives  and of  context.

The research speculates that the difference in performance between pen and keyboard is a function of speed. Handwriting is slower than typing and that forces those taking notes to summarize and distill what they are hearing. Those choosing to type are presumed to be striving to create a verbatim transcript. So, the researchers are confusing a technology choice with a strategy choice. What kind of notes you choose to take dominates the choice of recording method. Unless you control for the strategy choice, your research design tells you nothing.

The second driver of technology choice here is context. What environment are you collecting notes in and how does your technology choice influence the context?

When I was writing cases, I would often be working with a professor and we would both be taking notes. Similarly, in many consulting settings, there would be more than one person conducting an interview. In those situations, we would divide responsibilities with one person primarily managing the interaction and conversation and another primarily capturing notes.

As another contextual example, consider the increasing use of electronic medical records in health care. Doctors I’ve spoken with lament that keyboards reduce the quality of doctor/patient interaction. One response has been the use of medical scribes (Scribes Are Back, Helping Doctors Tackle Electronic Medical Records : Shots – Health News : NPR) to redistribute responsibilities.

All of this simply reinforces that “it depends” is always an appropriate response when considering technology options. Few choices are binary. Even for something as simple as capturing notes.

Showing your work– intermediate knowledge work artifacts

Audit working papers exampleDuring my first job out of college I was assigned to work as staff on several financial audits. Consulting work was slow and the firm did not believe in idle hands. I was assigned to help with the audit of a major brokerage firm.

As part of the audit process, we had sent out letters to the firm’s several hundred thousand account holders asking them to return a form acknowledging that their account statements were correct or noting discrepancies if there were any. My task that first day was to sit at a conference table and count those forms. Each time I reached 100 forms I raised my hand and waited for an audit senior to put two rubber bands around my stack and take it away. I then counted another stack and the day continued.

I was granted a promotion the next day for my diligence at counting to 100. The slips of paper I had counted the day before had only a customer signature. Other slips had comments on them from customers. Some of those comments noted a discrepancy to be investigated; they claimed they held 115 shares of IBM, not 100, for example. Other slips contained what were deemed “gratuitous” comments; observations about a broker’s parentage or legitimacy were potentially entertaining but not pertinent to the audit.

I was not asked to make such a rarified judgment call; that was a task for trained and experienced auditors. I was considered qualified, however, to deal these slips out onto the glass of a photocopier, copy the slips front and back, assemble the results, and bind them into files to be saved as part of the audit working papers.

As mind numbing as you might think this experience was, it did drive home an idea about knowledge work that still echoes four decades later.

For all the exhortations on math tests to “show your work” I believed in answers. Showing your work was what you had to do when you didn’t get it.

Outside the world of classes and tests, showing your work was also something you needed to do when someone else didn’t get it either. Clients and managers weren’t necessarily doing to accept an answer just because you offered it up. You needed to be able to walk them through how you got there.

Lawyers call it a “chain of evidence”, scientists keep lab notebooks, artists make sketches on the way to a finished work, programmers version control everything.

The path between germ of an idea and final product can be long and convoluted. We so want to reach the end of the path—the answer—that we often fail to manage the trip effectively. That management task can be eased if we are mindful about the ways we design and introduce intermediate work products that support and fold into a final deliverable.

Twyla Tharp on the Practice of Collaboration

Book cover for Twyla Tharp The Collaborative habitThe Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Twyla Tharp. 2009. T

Collaboration is fundamentally an artistic process. That is easy to lose sight of in the organizational exhortations to be more collaborative and the mass of marketing literature touting the collaborative goodness of some new piece of software.

If you agree that attacking today’s wicked problems depends on effective collaboration, then the arts are a good place to look for insight. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp has done us a great service in reflecting on and sharing her decades of experience as creator and collaborator in The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. This is a book I’ve revisited many times since it was first published in 2009. I’m still learning from it.

Tharp concludes with the following advice:

In the end, all collaborations are love stories…Honesty and bluntness, but not to the point of pain. Mutual respect, but not to the point of formality and stiffness. Shared values, so the group’s mission can carry it over the inevitable bumps. And, of course, actual achievement, so the group is supported by an appreciative community.

This is not counsel that fits into a motivational poster in a conference room or into the menus of a new software application or service. Collaboration is a practice built over time out of snippets of behavior and interaction anchored in a supporting context.

Tharp shares the stories of her collaborations with fellow artists, institutions, and communities. As an aside, it is clear from her stories that Tharp has always been a reflective practitioner. Her earlier book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, contains insights into her processes and how she documents them; it is equally worthy of your time and attention. The richness and grounding of her observations reinforces her point that collaboration and creativity are work; rewarding work but work nonetheless.

When we observe the end products of creative and collaborative efforts, we admire the grace and beauty of the art and the artists. By taking us back into the process and behind the scenes, Tharp reminds us of the intense work and discipline it takes to make it look easy. She also reinforces the essential truth in an old cliche that “the work is its own reward.”

Seeing Better

When I was in the fourth grade, we figured out that I needed glasses. I was complaining about having trouble reading what was on the blackboard and after moving to the front row didn’t solve the problem, I was dispatched to an eye doctor. Sure enough, I was nearsighted. A few weeks later I got my first pair of glasses.

I particularly remember the sense of wonder at discovering that street signs were something you were supposed to be able to read from inside the car as you drove by. My eyes weren’t shaped to see the world in 20/20 on their own but I inhabited a world where a simple prosthetic compensated for that limitation.

I also lived in a world and a time when nuns were quite happy to provide the structure and discipline a daydreaming young boy might need to complete his lessons. External supports, innate curiosity, and a few extra IQ points took me a pretty long way.

I survived—actually thrived—for a long time because I operated in environments that offered supports matched to my deficits. I was well into my 40s before I suspected that I had ADD. As my responsibilities and environment changed, I kept trying to get closer to the blackboard until I ran out of rows. What I didn’t have was a way to figure out what constituted glasses or how to get the right prescription.

What I had instead was a story of the Peter principle in action. I had blown past my abilities. My credentials were accidental; past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Now, it also turns out that ADD and depression are often correlated, so add that to the equation.

Having a way to name what was going on was a necessary but not sufficient step. It made it possible to have productive conversations with the experts. We experimented with the various meds that worked for many, but not for me. The compensating strategies I had developed over time were matched to environments I no longer operated in. One choice would have been to return to a matching environment. Unfortunately, those environments have continued to shrink in our modern world.

So that leaves the choice of formulating a prescription that lets me see the board in front of me. The benefit of this particular metaphor is that I don’t have to be discouraged when a prescription that works for some doesn’t work for me.

The tricky part is that we talk more about what the prescription is than we do about why and how it works. When we talk about eyesight, we know how to assess and correct for myopia and astigmatism. And we know why the corrections work. When we’re trying to compensate for deficits in managing focus and attention doing complex knowledge work, we have to dig deeper and build provisional theories as we experiment.

This is clearly a work in progress. I am curious about how others might be tackling presumably similar challenges of matching their work practices to the unique demands of their environments? What metaphorical myopias and astigmatisms are you dealing with? How have you gone about designing and implementing corrections that work?

Review – Alan Alda on Communications and Improv

Book Cover imageIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alan Alda

I’ve been working through a line of thought about the growing importance of improv thinking to dealing with organizations and innovations in the current environment. In this book, Alda lays out  advice on how we might do a better job of communicating in our work and improv plays a central role.

Alan Alda’s rumination on communications grew out of his work as the host of the PBS series *Scientific American Frontiers*. As the host, Alda was faced with helping deeply technical experts explain what mattered about their work to mere mortals. Alda brings a perfect mix of a curious layperson’s perspective and a trained actor’s craft at communications. It’s also an entertaining and illuminating mix.

A naive view of acting and of communications is that the work involves learning and delivering a script. We learn our lines and recite them when the moment arrives. Alda dispenses with that illusion immediately; 80% of his advice involves listening and observation skills and techniques. The remaining advice talks about story telling, but that advice is rooted in how to tell stories that take advantage of how we expect stories to play out and not mislead the listener or reader. In other words, how do we put stories together that anticipate and raise the questions our readers will have.

Alda, of course, is a consummate story teller himself. There is no blinding flash of insight or advice that is startling or unexpected. What he provides instead is an artful example of how well his advice works in the hands of an experienced pro.

Stealing practice time from performance

Stage view Bright lights“Standby Cue 103.”

“Go Cue 103.”

We had about two minutes left in the finale. Twenty five dancers filled the stage, the music director was in the pit with another twelve musicians, I was stage right talking to the lighting crew via a headset and the stage crew via hand signals. In about thirty seconds, I would give a “Warn Cue 104” followed by a Standby and a Go.

It was the final night of our ten-city tour and we were performing in a lovely theater at New Trier West High School in Winnetka, Illinois. There’s a story about the space I’ll save for another day. Steve, the only performer not yet on stage tapped me on the shoulder. I looked away from my cue book. Steve was in his costume dressed as the Statue of Liberty—another story for another time.

Ok. He’s about to make his entrance upstage center. I’m not sure why he’s interrupted me.

Until he turns around.

Steve is not actually wearing his costume. He’s taped it on so that it looks normal from the front. From behind he’s naked from head to toe.

I miss giving the warning for Cue 104, but do manage to get out the Standby and Go in time. I then warn the crew to keep their eyes on the next 90 seconds. We set up and execute the next half dozen lighting cues, the band continues to play, and Steve makes his entrance, which starts from upstage center and proceeds downstage to the edge of the orchestra pit. As Steve passes each row of dancers, that row misses a step and recovers.

The finale ends, the curtain falls, and cast and crew breaks into hysterics.

Juvenile? Certainly. Unprofessional? Not really.

One of the payoffs of rehearsal and constant practice is the capacity to go with the flow. And to know when you can tweak the flow without interfering with the audience’s experience. It was the final number in our final performance. The steps were muscle memory at this point. Letting me know at the last moment was more of a gift to the crew than a needed warning.

One thing that puzzles me about ordinary organizations is how they develop capacity to respond to the unexpected, to go with the flow successfully. The magic we see on stage or on the athletic field demands time dedicated to practice and rehearsal. It is the practice and rehearsal that creates the capacity to adapt. That time is built into the process.

Ordinary organizations don’t build this into their process. Learning and rehearsal time is limited to occasional training experiences or stolen moments of on-the-job training. The rare major systems rollout may get planned training and support time.

Conventional wisdom says that people in organizations resist change. What they resist, sensibly, is demands for polished performance without rehearsal. By ignoring the role of rehearsal and practice, organizations end up with lower levels of performance. Rehearsal happens but only by disguising some performance time as a mediocre form of rehearsal. Neither practice or performance is effective.

Taking the half-life of knowledge seriously

I’ve made the claim that the half-life of knowledge is shrinking in most domains. We often frame this from the perspective of the increasing volumes of data and information we are called on to assimilate, but there is something worth teasing out by thinking in terms of pace instead of volume.

One of the first places I encountered this notion of the accelerating decay of knowledge was in reference to its impact in engineering fields. James Plummer, Dean of Stanford’s Engineering School, observed that

“The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years. As dean, I used to tell students it doesn’t matter what we teach you because it will be obsolete when you graduate, so go out and have a good time.” The Engineers of the Future Will Not Resemble the Engineers of the Past

He’s right if you think of his teaching responsibility as installing an up-to-date and accurate body of knowledge. While he nods in the direction of life-long learning, he doesn’t say anything about how life-long learning should differ from the way it has been organized in formal educational settings. Our naive assumptions about how learning works are anchored in our experience in schools and classrooms; there’s stuff to be learned, an expert to teach it, and a timetable to follow. At the other extreme, there is on-the-job training with little or no structure or guidance.

We see some attention to the notion of learning how to learn. Most of that, however, focuses on how to do a better job within the structures of courses, classrooms, and schools we feel comfortable with. The proliferation of new channels for learning—Khan Academy, Udemy, MOOCs — stay within the broad outlines of that comfortable structure.

None of that addresses the question of how to approach learning when the knowledge landscape is in constant flux. What do you do if you need to pick up a new skill before someone writes the book or the course you need in this structure? How do you manage your learning when figuring out what you need to learn is the first order of business? Worse, everyone else is in the same predicament; new knowledge is accumulating and old knowledge becoming obsolete faster than the systems we know can adapt.

There is one example I can think of for managing learning under these conditions. That is the world of doctoral students in evolving disciplines.

The assumptions about knowledge and learning baked into work at that level match the environment much more effectively than the assumptions built into studies at earlier stages of learning and knowledge acquisition. That change in assumptions, in fact, is one of the traps that students fall into when they try to make the transition into doctoral level work. It isn’t that the work gets harder. The work doesn’t conform to the practices that worked for acquiring and demonstrating your mastery of a known body of knowledge.

First, you discover that the consensus on what constitutes the relevant body of knowledge is in flux and always will be. As a fledgling expert in the field a doctoral student is now expected to develop a point of view about where the knowledge edges are; eventually, you are expected to push beyond them. In stable fields, you have the luxury of limiting your search for answers to the authoritative texts. In the worlds we are discussing now, you are forced to seek out and make sense out of primary sources. Behaviors that once would have gotten you in trouble–questioning sources, arguing with your teachers, disputing conclusions–are now skills to be developed. You must learn to develop your own models and conclusions to make sense of new data as it appears.

This leads to the second key difference; there are more experts to know of and they disagree. The good ones expect you to disagree with them. Learning is less about finding a master whose feet you can sit at and more about finding colleagues to travel with. Learning takes on the flavor of conversations with challenging people.  Conversations imply that you should expect a balanced distribution of questions, answers, hypotheses, and evidence. Asking “will this be on the exam” becomes a     question you must answer for yourself.

Finally, you must develop map making skills. You are in new territory, out where the dragons lurk. You need to keep track of where the sinkholes and oases lie. This will keep you safe on your own journey and give you something to compare notes on as you encounter other travelers drawing maps of their journeys.

Learning to solve for pattern

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels“We need you back in the office now, Anthony’s team just got fired.”

I was at lunch. Back in the office, we were running a training simulation where a team of consultants was engaged in an assessment project for a hypothetical client. Over the course of a week, the consulting team interacted with the client by way of email, phone calls, and a handful of face-to-face meetings with client executives. The client executive roles were filled by retired executives who we paid to play the parts of CEO, CFO, and CIO.

Somehow, Anthony’s team of consultants had provoked the client CEO to fire the team on day 2 and demand that they vacate the premises. This was not a scenario we had built into the design of the simulation. How do you get fired from a  simulation? It was one of the more memorable “teachable moments” I had encountered.

We broke character and I facilitated a debrief of the “firing” that offered the junior members of the team a peek into the dynamics of managing client relationships they wouldn’t otherwise see and gave us a path back into the simulation for the remainder of the week.

It also started a deeper train of thought about how to get better at working in dynamic, high-stakes, settings. That proved important beyond the bounds of training as the environment continued to become more dynamic and the stakes continued to rise.

We designed this training simulation with help from a group at Northwestern University called the Institute for Learning Sciences. It was a group accustomed to building carefully scripted and automated training simulations for organizations such as Accenture and Verizon. They were  also accustomed to project budgets that looked more like our annual revenues than our budget.

Our resource limitations forced us to focus on design principles and forgo sophisticated technology features. We shifted the balance toward something that was more structural outline and less line by line script. We used a mix of technology and experienced support staff behind the scenes to shape and go with the flow as the simulation played out. Our goal was to create a learning environment that prepared people for the real consulting environments they would soon have. When our new consultants went out into the field for their first real assignments, we got the feedback that mattered. Our consultants were ready for what projects and clients threw at them.

The environment our consultants encountered was also changing. All organizations were dealing with accelerating innovation in strategy, technology, and organization. We had created our company on the belief that this acceleration would continue and would demand more responsive approaches to cope with and take advantage of that acceleration. The idea that the half-life of knowledge and expertise was shrinking was no longer an issue on the horizon. It was becoming a central feature of our day-to-day work.

Our training design was born of resource limitations. As much by luck as by design we had stumbled on deeper lessons for our work. We were learning how to navigate environments without a script and without rehearsal time. We were developing perspectives and practices oriented to an improv logic as the world demanded more responsiveness and adaptability.

I’ve come to believe that navigating this environment requires a shift in perspective and a set of operating practices and techniques that can be most easily described as improv adapted to organizational settings.

The shift in perspective moves from a world of connecting the dots to a world of “solving for pattern”. I borrowed the phrase from essayist Wendell Berry. It asks us to step back from the immediate details and view problems from a higher, systemic, vantage point.

Connecting the dots thinking is simplistic; find the picture hiding in the data and the details and select the appropriate script to respond. Google the term “bedbug letter” to see a classic, although possibly apocryphal, example.of connecting the dots.

Solving for pattern seeks to understand the driving forces that can explain the situation at hand as one instance of a class of similar situations. Instead of selecting a script that matches the immediate problem, solving for pattern looks for leverage points within the structure of forces where smaller nudges can trigger disproportionate responses.

As you make the shift to solving for pattern, you find yourself in a much more dynamic and collaborative environment than your likely comfortable with. If you’ve given up on the idea of a pre-existing script to work from, you must now learn how to create an actual conversation in the moment. This is the essence of improv practice in the world of theater.

Improv is something that can be learned and finding an improv class to participate in wouldn’t be a bad idea. For our purposes, it’s more useful to explore how we might adapt improv practices and mindsets to ordinary organizational settings.

Good improv practice is anchored in presence and focused attention. The fundamental rule is to agree to interact and agree to keep moving forward. In improv parlance, that agreement is referred to as “yes, and…” Adapting that mindset in an organizational setting calls for accepting that all players in a conversation have something to add.

What that also implies is a responsibility to bring as much as you can to add to the conversation and  commit to learning all that you can to better understand what everyone else in the conversation is bringing with them. This advice may seem contradictory; you must be prepared to both teach and learn at the same time. In a script world, you can simply accept the answers of specialists or insist that your specialized answers be accepted without modification.

In an improv world you must be prepared to “show your work.” Not to force your conclusions onto the conversation, but to enrich the conversation in search of a better collaborative answer. There are practices and techniques that can make the learning and the sharing easier to manage. But becoming comfortable in the mindset is essential.