Personal knowledge management is a design problem not a selection task

PKM is a hot topic on the Interwebs. Everyone is peddling an answer; doubly so if you count the resurgence of evangelizing about the magic of notes. Everyone has the answer. No one is asking the right questions.

The questions I keep seeing run along these lines:

  • Which software product is best?
  • Is this the right way to build my Second Brain?
  • Who has the best training course/YouTube channel/e-book?

All of these questions are on a level of “Will this be on the test?” They are anchored in an unexamined assumption that there is a right answer.

Personal means personal.

All of the answers out there are answers that started out as the solution to someone’s personal take on the answer to the questions they had. At the very least you need to figure out whether those questions bear any resemblance to the questions you have.

You need to back up and formulate your knowledge management questions first before you have any hope of assessing the value of what is out there. The other day I suggested four questions that could get you started. Those questions put you on a design path, not a selection path.

This is not an easy perspective to shake free of. We are trained and acculturated to seek out “right answers.” Most of schooling is set up this way. Much of contemporary schooling was designed to prepare its products (students) to operate in a factory world of meeting production targets for standardized outputs. Only a tiny fraction of the workforce was expected and permitted to think for themselves.

We’re not quite sure what to do with the responsibility to understand our work and our unique contributions. And then comes the task of designing and implementing the practices that will let us carry out that work effectively. There is valuable advice out there to make use of. But the value lies in recognizing that what is out there is not the answer but input for the design work that you must do.

Why solving for pattern makes more sense than connecting the dots for knowledge work

I’m on record that solving for pattern is a better approach to knowledge work than connecting the dots. Connecting the dots is pretty common usage. I don’t think it needs much elaboration. Except to point out that there is a presumption that someone else has already drawn the picture you are now expected to reveal.

It’s about locus of control. Connecting the dots grants you only the task of discerning what someone else has already done.

Solving for pattern puts the responsibility where it belongs; on you. I encountered the term in Wendell Berry’s essay of the same name (add link).

A few days back I picked on the notion that if something works for you 10,000 times you have license to assert you have proven something in a substantive way. Implicitly I was asserting that there is only one path to reliable knowledge—experimental and replicable science. Pretty arrogant for a former case writer.

What I was arguing, perhaps badly, was that you need to be careful about the claims you can make about what you think you know. Solving for pattern is a shorthand for the process of building explanations from the experience (first and second hand) that you accumulate and models of the underlying systems you are interacting with along the way.

Solving for pattern is an active process that never ends. Each new cycle through the pattern is an opportunity to try a new variation or to investigate how changes in the external environment tweak the outcomes you expect. You’re free to try any “proven system” you’d like. You’ve also learned to be appropriately skeptical about other people’s proof.

Four questions to begin your personal knowledge management practice

I’ve made the claim that effective knowledge management must be personal at its foundation. This led one colleague to ask the natural question of “how do I get started?”

If you’re a knowledge worker, understand that you are already doing knowledge management in some form. You have an existing practice, even if you may not give yourself credit for it. Understanding what you are doing now is the best way to make it better.

Here are four questions that will help you tease out your existing PKM practice:

  1. What deliverables are you expected to create?
  2. When and how do you reflect on how and what you create?
  3. Where do you feel most/least comfortable in your work?
  4. What are the edges you encounter in your work?

Developing answers to these questions will surface strengths you can build on and weaknesses you will want to shore up. As you develop answers, you will also want to assess what degrees of freedom you have to work with. What restrictions does your organization or environment impose that you will need to bypass or overcome?

There’s a lot of attention and interest in the PKM field now. So there is a wealth of information to tap into. But the best place to start is with what you are already doing to meet the current demands of your work.

Choosing innovation perspectives

Ghost light on a bare stage

We rolled the last road box up the ramp and onto the truck. We were done. The truck was on its way to Chicago, our next stop. The stage was now bare, empty of the sets, lights, and cast that had filled it a few hours earlier. I had one last task as Stage Manager before heading off to the cast party now in more than full swing.

My last responsibility was to make sure that the “ghost light” was on. The theater is replete with custom and tradition. You never wish a cast member “good luck,” it’s “break a leg.” It’s “The Scottish Play” never “Macbeth.” And, you never leave a stage dark; there’s always at least one light left on over the stage. They’ll tell you it’s a safety thing; you don’t want someone to walk off the edge of the stage by accident. But, it’s really to keep the ghosts away.

The thing about a bare stage is that it exists between an ending and a beginning. There are old stories to be told and new stories to create. Either is a worthy task; it’s a choice of perspective.

Suppose it’s a new story you would like to tell. Economist Joseph Schumpeter developed the notion of “creative destruction;” the idea that innovation depends on getting rid of the old to make way for the new. It’s easiest to see in the demolition of old factories to make room for new ones. It’s harder to suss out when we’re talking about shedding obsolete ideas.

This seems to be an unexplored aspect of knowledge work. How does what’s gone before connect to the new thing wanting to emerge? What are the questions that bridge from “remember when?” to “what’s next?”?

Both corporate and personal knowledge management obsess with capturing and recording what has gone before in the hope that those lessons will somehow guide us going forward. Avoiding error seems pretty straightforward. How many corporate procedures and policies boll down to “don’t ever do that again”? But what of the new? What about innovation?

Science fiction might offer one answer. Not so much in its track record of successfully predicting new technologies. That’s the mistake some companies make when they invite science fiction writers to share their predictions.

It isn’t the predictions that are important. It is the process. Good science fiction starts with the presumption that human psychology and behavior will remain stable and predictable. Science fiction explores two different questions, however, starting from that baseline assumption about where stability lies. First, they ask “what if…?”. How will a possible invention or event collide with that stability? Second, they explore “if this goes on…?”.

Gordon Moore notices that engineers are managing to double the number of transitors they can cram into the newly invented integrated circuits and asks the simple question “if this goes on” what can we expect? The Apple M1 chip powering the MacBook I am writing this on has approximately 16 billion transistors in 120 square millimeters. An immense amount of engineering talent and effort went into getting from there to here, but it starts with that fundamental question.

These are the better organizing questions to pick a direction and move. They start with that quiet moment when the only thing illuminating the stage is that light keeping the ghosts at bay.

Works for me times 10,000 does not translate to proven strategy

I’ve been working with the Ship 30 for 30 writing program. The price point was acceptable and I had enough recommendations/pointers from sources I trust to give it a try. I’m not the target demographic but concluded the cost/benefit tradeoff was positive nonetheless. Not the first time I’ve taken on a learning challenge with the full expectation that I would be adapting lessons to my own purposes.

The lesson at hand focuses on why I should adopt their model of headlines. At best, the title for this post is within the outer periphery of their recommendations. But it’s more of an assertion about why I object to their logic.

Their argument is that a headline should make a clear promise of what is to follow and that any headline that delivers on its promise is not clickbait. Unobjectionable. They assert that this advice is rooted in their extensive experience producing headlines in their preferred style.

Extensive experience is a better starting place than a shot in the dark. On its own, however, “extensive experience” is just another way of saying “it works for me”. String all the stories you want together and it still doesn’t add up to data. You need a theory of the case for how your collection of anecdotes leads to your recommended rules. Asserting a proven strategy is only the first of many steps on the path to knowledge I can trust; I haven’t seen those steps.

The recommended headline structures do, indeed, feel like clickbait to me. While I agree that delivering on the promise of your headline absolves you of the accusation of promoting clickbait, I also swim in a sea of clickbait. I’ve been burned more than enough times to be highly skeptical of any headline that smells of clickbait. When I have a choice between a clickbait headline and a dull headline from someone I trust, the choice is easy.

The question becomes how do I find sources I trust? How do I find people whose pointers are worth following? I had a phone call this morning from a colleague and friend I’ve know for close to forty years. Over the course of 45 minutes I came up with dozens of pointers to things I now want to read.

A decent headline might get me to click. What I’m really in search of is sources I can trust.

Evolving a more effective writing practice

I’ve written on deadline and assignment for much of my life. We all learn to do that in school. Add extracurricular writing activities, segue into a career in consulting, work as a case writer at Harvard Business School, write a dissertation, co-author two books, start blogging in 2001, and I think I can claim to be a practiced wordsmith.

What’s been troubling me lately is restoring consistency in getting across the finish line. The transition from writing to hitting publish seems to be acting more like a roadblock than a speed bump. I’ve had some success with various forcing functions that work for a while but haven’t proven sustainable. I need to develop better insights into what works well and what doesn’t in my writing practice.

“Practice” feels a more suitable term than “process.” It keeps the feel organic rather than mechanical. It reminds me to stay mindful of craft when the environment celebrates the mechanical and the technological. Don’t misunderstand. I am a fan of technology wherever it aids my craft. For example, I’ve created at keyboards for over half a century. My handwriting is atrocious. I used to transcribe interview notes as soon as possible after taking them (something I should have also done with lecture notes but that is a tale for another time). I was an early adopter of word processing software, outliners, mindmapping tools, and have experimented with multiple “tools for thought” as they’ve become practical.

I’ve found myself less enamored of templates and formulas. To me, they smack of industrial thinking. Again, I prefer the image of practicing my craft in a workshop over that of churning out product or content in a factory. I’m not striving for masterpieces of art but I’m not producing widgets either. I want what I create to be functional and pleasing to the senses at the same time.

One difference between a practice and a process that has been on my mind is that a process implies a set procedure; a fixed sequence of steps guaranteed to turn out a predictable finished product. A practice suggests a story behind each finished piece. Understanding and improving practice flows from inspecting both the finished pieces and their origin stories. What this has meant for me is that notes and chronology have taken a more central place in my craft.

Notes and note-making have been undergoing something of a renaissance in the last several years. I’ve been tapping into that creative stream. It’s a rich manifestation of something I was trying to articulete back in 2010 when I first touched on the notion of managing the visibility of knowledge work.

Owning your practice

I had an email exchange earllier this week asking what had soured me on the personal productivity space. “Soured” may be a bit too strong a term but I have become skeptical about most advice about personal productivity. It is not for lack of trying or familiarity with the domain.

A little history is in order.

I was a product of the parochial school system. Nuns had their methods for dealing with daydreamers. Getting caught at it bordered on a mortal sin. I mostly avoided getting caught. I was lucky to have one nun who figured out that a major piece of my problem was that I wan’t being challenged enough and channeled me to a private all boys school for middle school and high school. Turns out that Benedictine monks are even better than nuns at keeping you busy and focused.

Their tutelage earned me entry into Princeton. In retrospect, I should have brought one of the monks with me instead of my typewriter. I left behind a support system that was simultaneously invisible and essential for keeping me organized and focused. ADD was not a diagnosis that existed in the early 1970s.

Struggling with deadlines and deliverables was either a moral or a systems failure. I opted for the systems failure hypothesis.

I didn’t articulate it that way but I found my way to the first of many systems promising to provide the structure I needed. That first was contained in Alan Lakein’s classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, published midway through my college career. I bought DayTimers and Palm Pilots. I paid for David Allen’s workshops out of my own pocket. I’ve tried just about every piece of productivity and personal management software that’s reached the market. They would work for a while, then collapse.

The moral failure hypothesis was beginning to look more likely. On the other hand, I was getting stuff done even when it felt harder that I thought it should have. I convinced Harvard to give me an MBA and a doctorate in business. I had a series of successes and occasional catastrophic failures. What I was struggling to discern was an underlying pattern that didn’t hinge on my being a bad person (or on everyone else being out to get me).

My doctorate is in how organizations manage to innovate, particularly with technology and systems. I turned that lens into a mirror. I was successful when I was in an environment that compensated for my weaknesses and failed in environments that called for strengths where I was weak.

Part of the answer came when the world put a name to my particular collection of strengths and weaknesses—ADD. More recently, we’ve broadened that notion to the idea of neurodiversity. People’s brains work differently. By and large the world is uncomfortable with diversity. Organizations and markets want to find and address large, average, groups.

This is as true for productivity promoters as concert promoters. Wonderful if you are Taylor Swift and your art matches nicely with millions of fans. Less desirable if your art appeals only to left-handed guitarists.

We all have the same twenty-four hours available to us each day. We are all faced with more options for what we might do than will fit into those twenty-four hours. Productivity advice ought to be universal applicable. The unstated assumption is that we are all neurotypical and that we, therefore, treat hours and options in the same way.

Productivity advice assumes that one size fits all. All you need do is put on this particular productivity outfit and all will be well. Neurodivergence means that nothing fits right off the rack. The question isn’t whether the advice is right or wrong; the question is how to make it fit you.

It is safe to presume that productivity advice will continue to target the average neurotypical brain. If that is not you, then you have extra work. Work to understand and articulate how you diverge. What’s easier for you? What’s harder? Can you find a way to compensate? Adapt the recommendations to something better suited to your unique profile.

It’s nice if off the rack suits you. But you’ll do even better if you learn how to tailor things to minimize your weak spots and flatter your best features. True whether we’re talking fashion or work practices.


Knowledge is personal, manage it that way

Thirty years ago I was the Chief Knowledge Officer of Diamond Technology Partners, a consulting firm attempting to blend the perspectives of Accenture and McKinsey. Leveraging what we knew was the essence of the value we created for clients. With a total headcount at the start of 25 people, the title was more aspirational than practical.

Things got tougher as we grew to over 1,200 professionals over the next six years. The technology couldn’t do what we thought it needed to do. There were no playbooks for how to do knowledge management. Half of what we did had never been done before. We tried programs and practices with variable success.

One of the central challenges was persuading our consultants to share what they knew with one another. The consensus in the field at the time was that sharing was the problem to crack.

Pondering the question of what made knowledge sharing hard led to one of those shower moments where insight happens. Were our consultants hoarding their knowledge to preserve their rank and status? What incentives could we offer them to part with what they had learned for the benefit of the organization? Did we need to find more altruistic individuals who would share because it was the right thing to do? Could I be doing something to set a better example of what good knowledge sharing looked like? Had I done anything recently that was worth sharing more widely? What, in fact, had I learned recently that was of any interest or value?

I had found the culprit!

Knowledge sharing was failing because I wasn’t sharing knowledge with myself. Socrates had it right after all. Know thyself.

It’s hard to share what you don’t know that you know.

The starting point for effective knowledge management in organizations needs to be knowledge management at the personal level. If you are a knowledge worker, effective personal knowledge management matters regardless of whether your organization cares.

In the last several years, we’ve seen a surge of interest and attention to the problems of personal knowledge management. The technology environment has become more welcoming and robust. There are organizational barriers that continue to make this harder than necessary. Organizations still favor standardization and control in ways that clash with the needs of individual knowledge workers. This will resolve over time.

If you are an individual knowledge worker, you should be thinking in terms of your own PKM needs and environment. You may need to work around organizational limitations. Persevere. The improvements in your effectiveness will buy you degrees of freedom in enlightened organizations. If not, your organization may be less enlightened than you’d like.

Learning to navigate the middle

I was a decent track and field athlete in high school. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. In particular, I was a sprinter. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

Craft and technique in sprinting is pretty minimal. If you’ve been gifted with the right fast twitch musculature, it mostly boils down to a fast start and a good kick to finish.

That strategy can take you surprisingly far off the track as well. How many all-nighters did you pull in college? String enough sprints back to back and you can get pretty far.

Eventually you reach challenges that won’t yield. You have to work out how to navigate the middle. Once it comes into sight, you can work out a way to get to the finish line. What keeps you moving when you’re somewhere in the middle of the desert or forest and there’s nothing to suggest which direction to move in, much less how far off the destination might lie?

The realm I am focused on right now is writing, although I think this problem crosses multiple forms of knowledge work. What does the middle look like here? As I think about the writing advice and lessons I’ve encountered over the years, this middle feels overlooked. Or, at least, not spoken about in a useful way. Lots of advice to be found about how to defeat the blank page. Anne Lamott is all in for shitty first drafts but says very little about what comes after draft number one. John McPhee acknowledges that Draft No. 4 exists. Maybe Steven Pressfield’s Resistance is his answer to navigating the middle.

Right now, I am at the point where I believe that there is leverage to be found in looking more carefully at the middle. I suspect I’ve been there before when the starting point is somewhere behind me and the finish is yet to come into sight. What lessons are waiting for me here?

Making Knowledge Work Observable

“You can observe a lot by just watching.” – Yogi Berra

A fundamental problem with today’s knowledge work is that you can’t watch it unfold. On a factory flow you can make very educated inferences about what is happening with a few moments of watching. You can’t say the same in your typical office or your average Starbucks.

You can’t manage what you can’t see. Frederick Taylor created the whole of Scientific Management simply by watching how laborers went about their jobs, recording what he observed, and asking “what if we changed X?”.

Before we have any hope of making knowledge work more productive or more effective, we have to make it visible. The problem is that we’ve spent the last several decades making knowledge work invisible. Not the outputs. The process.

How much of your work and the work around you takes place at a keyboard in front of a screen? When I first started writing, the process involved pen and paper and index cards. Those objects surrounded me as I hammered out drafts and outlines. Then the manuscript (or the hand-sketched slides) went off to a typing pool or the graphics department. Corrections got made in margins and cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and glue. Today, it is all digital.

I have no desire to go back to those days.

What I have learned is that it pays to think about ways to make the thinking that I do to get from germ of an idea to a final deliverable visible and observable. This draft is being written in one window on my laptop screen. To its left is another window containing my notes and what passes for an outline. Below that is a window with a time-stamped log of what I’ve been up to over the course of the day.

Is this the best way to manage my self? I have no idea. But it works well enough for the moment. My practices continue to evolve as new tools become available, new ideas and approaches surface, and my understanding of my own mind improves (we’ll talk about neurodivergence another day). But the starting point is to make it possible to watch so that I can observe.