Idea Management as an Abundance Problem

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

 Linus Pauling

I suppose it’s fitting that I have struggled with this blog post far more than most. It began with a desire to improve the rhythm and cadence of completing and published writing deliverables. Having just passed nineteen years writing this blog, you would think I was beyond fits of teenage angst. Maybe the onset of blogging adulthood is more daunting than I realized. 

I’ve always liked the Pauling quote. Having lots of ideas has never been a particular problem for me, so I’ve trusted that some reasonable portion of them would be good enough to share. For a long time, I attributed my occasional struggles to focus on a particular train of thought on my ADD. Bright shiny objects always promise a dopamine hit, but I’ve felt like I’ve been able to keep it enough under control. 

It occurs to me, however, that my ADD simply serves as an early introduction into a world that we all now live in. We all swim in an overwhelming abundance of ideas. Our training and practice focuses on turning individual ideas into a desired deliverable, whether that is a blog post, a client presentation, or a spreadsheet analysis for our boss. 

While there’s much to be learned about that idea to deliverable evolution, there’s another layer of knowledge work practice that we must tackle. That thread of idea to deliverable is one element of a collection of threads and you have to manage the collection as something distinct from any one thread. 

Simply splitting the problem into two layers is a step forward for me. I have a reasonable handle on the first layer; I know how to take an idea,  develop it, extend it, and polish it into a deliverable. As a creative task, however, that process is rarely linear. Ideas are not widgets, you can’t simply plow ahead from idea to deliverable. You often need to set things aside and let them cook. 

Which is where the second layer comes into play. What do you pick up when you set the first idea aside? Presumably another idea that you set aside earlier or a new idea trying to seduce you. You now have a management problem as well as a creation problem. 

The management problem is about selecting ideas, monitoring progress, switching, sequencing, timing, and cadence. This is operating at a different level of abstraction from the creation process. 

At small scales, you can likely manage organically. There aren’t so many threads that you can’t keep most or all of the management issues in your head. With time and the accumulation of a body of work, it’s worthwhile to externalize the management problem and not try to rely on the limits of memory. At the same time, the management process must be subordinate to the creative process. 

Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been gradually retooling my baseline creative practices around a more disciplined note-centered practice. Like any retooling, this has led to a temporary drop in output. As committed to improvement as I may be, there’s still muscle memory to be overcome. Even bad habits are still habits that require extra energy to break down and replace. Some markers of this journey that have risen to things worth sharing include:

Early on, what management of the process I did was on the proverbial back of an envelope. Keep a list of ideas as they came to me and pick something off the list when I sat down to write the next piece. Look back at the last few blog posts and write a follow up piece. Do this for any length of time, however, and the envelope gets pretty full

My next thought was to take the list off the back of the envelope and formalize it. I dug into the approaches of other writers who’ve gone through this evolution. Among the appealing approaches I ran into were:

These approaches, however, don’t scale well. As your body of work grows, you risk spending more time maintaining the management control system than you do creating new work. That misses the point entirely. 

Some Zettelkasten advocates claim that the necessary tools and structure emerge as you gain more experience and grow your collection of notes:

This hasn’t played out for me. Setting aside the hypothesis that this simply reflects my personal limitations, what’s missing? 

This comes back to the distinction between creating and managing. Most of the discussion and advice I’ve been able to review is focused almost exclusively on creation. It either ignores managing the process as a whole or presumes that what needs to be managed is trivial relative to making creation work more smoothly and reliably. 

To manage the overall process you need to get above the details of individual work in process (WIP) items. You want to collect just enough data about each item to not have to read the entire piece while you are trying to manage a collection of multiple WIP items. And you need to track the status of each piece of WIP relative to its transition from WIP to final deliverable. Is this item a new idea? A draft? In need of editing? Ready to publish? Published? There’s a life cycle to be defined. This is the metadata you need to make informed decisions about the overall process. Do you have enough WIP to feed your deliverable goals? How does the mix of materials look?

This is a classic data management problem that would seem to call for a simple spreadsheet as DBMS solution. Or a multi-column outline of some sort. Both of those approaches failed relative to the goal of keeping the management system subordinate to the creative system. As I continue the transition to a note-centric creation system, the challenge is to embed the pertinent metadata in the individual notes and create some method of querying the metadata to generate the schedules and lists that will help me manage the creative process. Now that I’ve got a handle on the basic requirements for managing my WIP, the next step is to discover or create the reporting tool. 

Mine experience for design insight

What’s the value of experience in the rapidly changing world we inhabit?

This isn’t a new question. Mark Twain raised it over a century ago:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Experience matters when it offers insight into what action to take next. In a slower world, the insights can be treated as scripts to execute because we know that they work. We may not particularly care why they work if the world is stable enough.

Change makes old scripts obsolete. At one extreme we can adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s observation that “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical…young people are just smarter.” Ignore experience, move fast, break things, hope your IQ points manage to mesh with where the world is going. It’s difficult to argue with Zuckerberg’s success. On the other hand, Facebook is now constrained by its own history and experience. Experience remains a factor.

If change happens too fast for experience to be packaged into scripts, how do we then leverage experience? My hypothesis is that the answer lies in actively processing experience. I think this is part of the argument for knowledge management. However, knowledge management approaches in many organizations focus on accumulating and organizing experience without real processing. They are anchored in an assumption that simple access to experience will be sufficient.

The value of experience in a rapidly changing world is to reveal patterns that can be mined for principles that in turn feed the design of possible responses.

Knowledge management matters more to you than to your organization

I gave a talk on Saturday for ChicagoLand PMI about why knowledge workers needed to develop strategies and the supporting habits and practices to manage and develop their know how across organizations and across time. If you’re interested you can find a copy of my slides on Slideshare.

Knowledge management as buzzword and practice originated in solving organizational problems. That’s where the big, obvious, problems are as well as the budgets. But the roots of the problem lie in the changing nature of work and careers at the individual level.

My father worked for three organizations in his career; I’ve worked for twenty so far and the number is likely to climb. Some might argue that this reflects either a severe case of ADD or a general inability to hold a job. Regardless, the trend is real; knowledge workers will work for more organizations and have shorter tenures at each. Organizations worry about the knowledge retention problems this creates; I’m more interested in the knowledge management problems it creates for individuals. I am aware of a handful of people who are also thinking about this; Harold Jarche, Luis Suarez. If you know of others, I would love to hear about it. 

The nub of my concern is this. You cannot rely on your memory and the experience it encodes. You also can no longer rely on having access to the institutional memory and artifacts of any one organization to supplement your limited human capabilities. You ought to be thinking about and planning for how you will accumulate knowledge and expertise over time. What personal infrastructure should you be building that can travel with you? How should you adapt your work habits and practices to simultaneously deliver value to your organization and enhance the value of your personal knowledge base? What new practices and skills do you need to add to your repertoire?

Entropy and knowledge management

What does the second law of thermodynamics tell us about knowledge management? There’s some pretty complex mathematics around the laws of thermodynamics, but the poet’s version will do for our purposes:

  1. You can’t win
  2. You’re going to lose
  3. You can’t get out of the game

Life is a constant battle against entropy or disorder. Cars break down; they don’t repair themselves. Left to themselves, files, books, and ideas become disorganized. Organizations and the knowledge workers inside them are engaged in a constant, but doomed, fight against entropy; the order they bring is always temporary.

Knowledge management is one of many disciplines engaged in that fight. If entropy is destined to win, what does that tell us about how to carry on the fight?

It reminds us that perfection is the wrong goal. You can’t define a perfect taxonomy; 100% compliance with the documentation standards is wasted effort; there will always be something more pressing than the paperwork. This matters because the personalities attracted to the apparent orderliness of knowledge management tend to be seekers of this impossible perfection. You want to temper that predisposition, not feed it.

Surrendering to disorder isn’t a good strategy either. Let the reality of entropy shape our strategies and practices. There are things we should worry less about and things we might better do differently.

We should worry a lot less about perfection and completeness and strive instead for a standard of “good enough”. That requires more judgment and sensitivity to unique circumstance than most organizations—and many individuals—are comfortable with. Black and white makes for easier, albeit impossible, compliance standards and management.

If you are in a position to shift an organization in the direction of more gray, encourage that. If you are enmeshed in unrealistic organizational expectations, strive for only as much compliance as will keep the auditors and censors at bay. I’m not advocating open rebellion, or even mild “civil disobedience”; simply be comfortable that you have the laws of physics on your side while you quietly ignore stupider requirements.

If entropy is the law, how might you operate differently?

Learn where small efforts now postpone or eliminate major remediation efforts. Whatever you opt to do now, you are going to live with that choice later. Make your choices with that appreciation of a disorderly later. You are never going to go back later to add the appropriate tag, improve the name of the file, or reorganize the project team’s directories. Recognize the places and moments where a tiny injection of order now will pay lasting dividends. Don’t pretend that you can get organized after the press of the immediate has passed.

Entropy is inevitable. As a knowledge worker, your task is to create pockets of order out of the noise. As you create those pockets, don’t increase the noise everywhere else.

EntropyAndKidsHMP Comics

Nancy Dixon on – A Model Lessons Learned System – The US Army

Nancy Dixon provides an excellent review and analysis of the US Army’s Center for Lessons Learned and its role in the Army’s KM efforts. The following model gives you a quick picture of Dixon’s take on the topic.

 

Army Lessons Learned - my model

A Model Lessons Learned System The US Army
Nancy Dixon
Thu, 03 Feb 2011 19:49:02 GMT

Nancy’s entire post is well worth your time. It illustrates the gradual evolution of the system and role of building solid organizational foundations. This system is well-matched to the particulars of the Army’s organizational structures, culture, and their most pressing knowledge management needs.

An online survey about personal knowledge management

I wanted to make you aware of a survey about personal knowledge management that’s currently underway that would benefit from your participation. Here are the details along with relevant background.

Survey for Knowledge Management (KM) Practitioners and Researchers

Hello! My name is Kate Bower, and I m a graduate student studying knowledge management, strategic change and leadership and development in the Learning and Organizational Change Program (MSLOC) at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. I m contacting you and others like you because you are familiar with the field of Knowledge Management (KM), in that you likely practice, study, research, instruct, coach or consult on KM to some degree. Your contact information was obtained through a personal connection or a public source, or this message has been forwarded to you by your own personal connection.

MSLOC program requirements include completion of a 9-month research project, called a Capstone. My Capstone project is focused on the concept of Personal Knowledge Management, or how we as individuals manage our own information and ideas. The purpose of this study is to determine whether individuals who consciously manage their personal knowledge also consciously manage other aspects of their behavior; the secondary purpose is to discover if people who self-describe as effective personal knowledge managers are also effective at managing their behavior in general.

The target participants for this research are individuals familiar with the concept of Knowledge Management in the sense I ve described above: people who practice, study, research, instruct, coach or consult on KM to some degree, as they are likely to be somewhat familiar with the concept of personal knowledge management (PKM).

If you are interested in participating in this study, please complete the online questionnaire, which can be found here. The survey is comprised of 2 open-ended questions and 39 multiple choice questions; it should take participants approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Please feel free to forward this message or the survey link to personal connections that also fit the description of the target participant group.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Kate Bower


Master’s Candidate
Learning and Organizational Change, Northwestern University 2010
kcbower@u.northwestern.edu

I’ve had several opportunities to meet with Kate and discuss her research. I will keep you posted as she completes her efforts at Northwestern.

New Friends and New Perspectives from KM World 2009

One of the best parts of participating in KM World 2009 last month was the opportunity to catch up with some long-time friends, turn some long-time e-friends into face-to-face friends and to make some new friends.  One of those new friends was Allan Crawford, who directs an online master’s program in knowledge management at California State University Northridge. He’s put together a brief video post capturing the spirit of the conference:

Perspectives on KM World 2009

At this year s KM World conference I had a chance to talk to several of the participants and ask them the question what stood out for you from this year s conference.

Listen to what  stood out for Carla O Dell, Jim McGee, Patrick Lambe, Stan Garfield and others.

Here are a few of the responses:

Carla O Dell (APQC): Video will make a big difference in how we share knowledge YouTube has changed the world of KM

Jim McGee: The return to the organizational dimension of KM and the shift away from being enamored with technology

Bob Wimpfheimer (Dr Pepper): It has shifted how I think about KM.  Previously it has been storing documents and making them available I ve come to see it s much more important to connect people with people

Jon Husband:  After years of taking about how to reuse knowledge, optimize it and classify it, people are beginning to understand that it s really not very useful if people can t access it, share it and build upon it and that involves learning.  We are going to see blending of the disciplines we now know as learning, KM, personal development, organizational change

Eric Mack (ICA): The talk about social tools and social media the primary value of these social tools is in the connection they provide between other peoples knowledge and the work we do social networking tools allow us to bridge the connection between our experience and knowledge and that of others.

Patrick Lambe (Straits Knowledge): KM is in a long pause.  It has reached the limits of what it can do based on how we currently understand how knowledge is use in organizations.  It is still focused on individual transactions and individual pieces of knowledge .it needs to get to grips more with how organizations work as organisms as thinking organisms.  It is touching that with the collective intelligence and wisdom of crowds stuff but it is nowhere near sophisticated enough to show results and I think that is where it needs to go.

Stan Garfield (Deloitte): KM is definitely not dead it s alive.  But we still have a lot of things to do the things that I think are more important than the technology is the leadership the things we need to do to get people to behave in a certain way to get communities to take off.  These are leadership issues not technical challenges.

The consistent themes appear to be that KM is about connecting people to people KM is social and success is dependant upon behaviors.  Even with the emergence of E2.0 techology is an important enablor for the connections ( YouTube has changed KM ) but is not the center of KM.

If you were at the conference what stood out for you?

Perspectives on KM World 2009
Allan Crawford
Tue, 08 Dec 2009 23:46:34 GMT

Socializing and knowledge management

Before Lotus Notes or SharePoint we had Happy Hour. Arthur Andersen/Accenture grabbed an early lead in knowledge sharing because it recognized the value of a liquor license long before there was even a technological environment capable of supporting the likes of Notes or SharePoint. Their efforts demonstrate why successful knowledge management is rooted in the social, not the technical. It’s a lesson we keep needing to learn.

I started my professional career in the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co. years before the divorce that led eventually to the creation of Accenture. When I joined, the consulting group was known as "Administrative Services" and I spent a fair bit of time explaining to friends and prospective clients that I had nothing to do with office supplies or janitorial services. In those days, Andersen was justifiably known for its large investments in training its people in the skills and knowledge they needed to work effectively. It was one of the selling points that convinced me to join.

I joined Andersen shortly after it had invested in St. Charles. One of the primary training expenses was housing and feeding the hundreds of junior consultants being trained. It was the second largest expense item after the people costs themselves (both for instructors and for the students who weren’t generating revenue while being trained). Booking blocks of hotel rooms in Chicago or New York or London wasn’t going to be sustainable as Andersen continued to grow.

Just outside of Chicago, in St. Charles, was the campus of a recently failed Catholic girl’s college. Andersen’s partners bought the campus and transformed it into a center to house their training efforts. It made a great deal of sense and provided a smooth transition for all those young larval consultants; most of whom had just left similar campuses.

St. Charles was isolated and remote; an hour’s drive to the semi-bright lights of Chicago’s Rush and Division Streets. Few of us had the wherewithal to make the trip and courses were designed to provide little or no time to do so anyway. As a consolation prize, St. Charles had its own bar on campus. What the nuns who had run the college thought of this remains a mystery to me. What I have come to believe, however, is that getting this liquor license was the single most effective investment in knowledge management that Andersen ever made.

The bar at St. Charles was a safe place to share stories and a place where those with good stories mixed freely with those who needed to hear those stories. Better yet, the bar wasn’t a classroom. In a classroom, the teachers feel compelled to teach and the students feel compelled to feign wakefulness. In the bar, there was no teaching going on to interfere with the learning.

Before we started dressing things up in fancy terms like knowledge management and knowledge sharing we "talked shop." The bar was a natural place to talk shop. It was also a place where people came from all around the world. It was a place where we could start building the personal relationships on which future knowledge sharing would depend.

Today, of course, we operate in a more complex and widely distributed world. It can be harder to create and sustain the interactions needed to create those relationships. But keep that image of the bar in mind when you’re designing for your environment.

Knowledge management: the latest battle between the neats and the scruffies

I’m off to participate in a panel session (B105 – Changing/Resetting the Enterprise With PKM & Social Software Tools) this week at the KM World 2009 conference in San Jose. I thought I would rerun this post from a couple of years ago, as it reflects some of the thinking I plan on sharing. If you’re there, let’s hope we manage to connect.

 

"There are two groups of people, those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t." – Robert Benchley

Years ago, when I was doing work in the field of AI, I came across one of those binary splits that continues to be useful for my thinking; the split between "neats" and "scruffies." In the field of AI, the split differentiated between those favoring highly structured, logically precise approaches and those who preferred something more along the lines of "whatever works." Wikipedia offers a nice summary of the debate from that field.

Back in my school days, I think I was a neat (philosophically, not in terms of my room or study skills). When I first delve into new areas I am drawn to those who argue the neat case. As I get older and, I hope, more experienced, however, I find myself increasingly scruffy.

Much of the recent debate in the narrow field of knowledge management can be interpreted as one more recapitulation of the neats vs. scruffies argument. The technologies of blogs, wikis, and social media that collectively comprise the emerging notion of Enterprise 2.0 celebrate scruffiness as the essence of success in knowledge-intensive enterprises. The claim, backed by appropriately messy and sketchy anecdotal evidence, is that a loose set of simple technologies made available to the knowledge workers of an organization can provide an environment in which the organization and its knowledge workers can make more effective use of their collective and individual knowledge capital. Grass roots efforts will yield value where large-scale, centralized, knowledge management initiatives have failed.

Several implications flow from adopting a scruffy point of view. For one, "management" becomes a suspect term. If you can manage at all, you must do so at another level of abstraction. You aren’t managing knowledge; instead you are trying to manage the conditions under which knowledge work takes place and within which valuable knowledge might be created or put to use. At that point, it becomes more productive to think in terms of leadership rather than management; particularly if you subscribe to Colin Powell’s characterization of a leader as someone you’ll follow to discover where they’re going.

Second, you will need to deal with the problems that the neats have created in previous runs at knowledge management without alienating them at the same time. In most large organizations, knowledge management has been characterized as a technology problem or as a analog to financial management; placing it squarely within the purview of the organization’s neatest neats. This is a recipe for disappointment, if not outright failure.

It might possibly be an open question whether knowledge management can be eventually reduced to something as structured as accounting or library science. But it is a lousy place to start. Most organizations aren’t yet mature or sophisticated enough about knowledge work issues and questions to be obsessing about taxonomies or measurement and reward systems for knowledge work. But those are activities that are neat and specifiable and only superficially relevant. They lead to complex efforts to get to the right answer when we would be better served by simpler efforts to focus on productive questions.

C-words of knowledge

I’m working on a report for a client about knowledge management and knowledge sharing and I am deliberately avoiding the question of defining “knowledge.” I’ve learned that it’s a rat hole of interesting coffee shop conversation that ultimately produces little of value. On the other hand, I started playing with the idea of words that you might use during the conversation. Combine that with Twitter, constrain the problem, and see what results. I posted the following Tweet yesterday to start things off:

image

So far that’s led to contributions from @shifted, @hjarche, @hylton, @coyenator, and @rsukumar. Here’s the list as of this morning, which I’ve split between verbs and nouns (we seem to be a bit short on the noun side):

Catalog
Categorize
Cite
Classify
Coalesce
Codify
Collaborate
Collate
Collect
Comment
Communicate
Conceive
Connect
Consult
Constrain
Construct
Convert
Coordinate
Craft
Create
Critique
Crystallize
Community
Construct
Conversation

What would you like to add to the list?