More from Dan Pink on the Science of Motivation and Purpose

My long-time friend (old is such an ugly word) Vaughn Merlyn at IT Organization Circa 2017 points to the following fascinating animation to a speech by Dan Pink on his most recent book Drive, which I reviewed here earlier this year. It’s well worth 10 minutes of your time to watch.


We are in the midst of learning some immensely meaningful stuff about how our minds work in recent years. I’m willing to bet that those organizations that factor this knowledge into their designs first are going to make significant strides in the next few years.

Managing the visibility of knowledge work

Debates over whether the Internet is making us smart or stupid are entertaining in the bar and can serve as a pleasant background noise for ruminating during a keynote address in a dimly lit hotel ballroom. When I get back to work on Monday (or more likely on Sunday night) I return to the reality of working in a fundamentally digital environment. My files are digital, my tools are digital, and most of my interactions are digital.

As a knowledge worker, much of what I get paid for happens inside my own head. Before the advent of a more or less ubiquitous digital environment, however, that head work used to generate a variety of markers and visible manifestations. That visibility was important in several ways that weren’t evident until they disappeared:

  • Seeing work in progress in front of me made it possible to gauge my progress and make connections between disparate elements of my work.
  • Different physical representations helped to quickly establish how baked a particular idea was.
  • Physically shared work spaces supported rich social interactions that enriched the final deliverables and contributed to the learning of multiple individuals connected to the effort.

For all the productivity gains that accrue to the digitization of knowledge work, one unintended consequence has been to make the execution of knowledge work essentially invisible, making it harder to manage and improve such work. The benefits of visibility are now something that we need to seek mindfully instead of getting them for free from the work environment.

Knowledge work is better understood as craft work; its products are valuable because they are creative and original. Delivering identical consulting reports to different clients is grounds for a lawsuit, not an example of good knowledge management practice.

From a craft perspective, examining and understanding what constitutes a quality client report, for example, is an important part of the apprenticeship that transforms a recently minted MBA into a seasoned advisor. The visibility or invisibility of knowledge work products can make this process more or less difficult.

Before PowerPoint, crafted presentations began with a pad of paper and a pencil. You knew by looking at a roughed-out set of slides that it was a draft; erasures, cross outs, and arrows made that more obvious. You then took your draft to the graphics department, where you were yelled at for how little lead time you provided. A commercial artist tackled your incomprehensible draft spending several days hand-lettering text and building your graphs and charts.

From there you started an iterative process, correcting and amending your presentation. Copies were circulated and marked up by your manager and hers. Eventually, the client got to see it and you hoped you’d gotten things right.

Work was visible throughout this old-style process. Moreover, that visibility was a side effect of the work’s physicality. Junior members of the team could see how the process unfolded and the product evolved. You could see how editors and commenters reacted to different parts of the product. Knowledge sharing was a free and valuable side effect of processes that were naturally visible.

With e-mail, word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools, maintaining visibility of your knowledge work (at both the individual and workgroup level) requires mindful effort. An office full of papers and books provided clues about the knowledge work process; a laptop offers few such clues. A file directory listing is pretty thin in terms of useful knowledge sharing content. In an analog process, it’s easy to discern the history and flow of work. When an executive takes a set of paper slides and rearranges them on a conference room floor, a hidden and compelling story line may be revealed. You can see, and learn from, this fresh point of experience. That’s lost when the same process occurs at a laptop keyboard at 35,000 feet. The gain in personal productivity occurs at the expense of organizational learning.

In the digital process, who creates and what they contribute risks becoming more an exercise in political posturing and interpretation than simple observation. The abstracts in a document management system reveal little about what work is exemplary, new, or innovative, and obscures emerging patterns.

Invisibility is an accidental and little-recognized characteristic of digital knowledge work. Seeing the problem is the first step to a solution. While better technology tools will play an important role, the next steps are changes in attitude and behavior at the individual and work group level. For example, organizing your own digital files into project-related directories might help, but not if you continue to name files "FinalPresentationNN.doc" where NN is some number between 1 and 15 representing a crude effort at version control. Embed more information in the file name where you know it will be visible even as you e-mail it around the organization. Use more informative subject lines on your email. Those file names and subject lines should provide the best clues possible as to what will be found inside.

Systems developers have learned that time invested in naming standards and conventions pays off. Teams crafting knowledge-work products should make the same investments. Better yet, spend time with good development teams and look for ways to adapt their practices to more general-knowledge work.

New disciplines take time to become habits. Fortunately, they also eventually become "the way we do work here." As the disciplines take root, taking a more aggressive look at technology tools becomes appropriate. Many of the office suite tools offer some form of internal revision tracking or auditing tools. What’s missing is any systematic way to integrate these tools into a disciplined practice. The capabilities are there but they are irrelevant if they aren’t used intelligently. A version control system doesn’t do anything until you incorporate it into the routine practice of creating a new document.

The right starting point is to simply make the flow of work more visible. I suspect that this is one of the underlying attractions of social networking and micro-blogging. They promise to restore some visibility to digital team work that we lost in the first generation of tools.

If visibility is, indeed, important to effective knowledge work what else would you recommend as ways to manage and increase the visibility of the intermediate and end products of knowledge work and the people-to-people interactions that take place in creating those products?

Rethinking thought leadership as an operating principle

Thought leadership risks becoming an empty marketing phrase just as it becomes essential to long term success. In an idea economy more and more firms understand the importance of getting credit for being on the leading edge, but getting credit is best preceded by actually being there. Organizations that depend on generating and exploiting ideas need to become more systematic about integrating thought leadership into their operating principles and practices not just their marketing.

Value of thought leadership

How many of today’s successful organizations are built on top of better ideas? Some, like FedEx or Southwest Airlines, were built on top of a powerful core idea. Others, like Amazon or Apple, were built on a powerful core plus ongoing extension and elaboration of that core with new ideas. Still others, like the best professional services firms, depend on a steady stream of new ideas.

If you’re fortunate enough to come up with a FedEx or Southwest quality idea, ongoing thought leadership isn’t much of an issue and you can focus your organizational energies on execution. On the other hand, if you’re in an organization or industry where the half-life of ideas is continuing to shrink, then you need a more explicit strategy than waiting for the next flash of entrepreneurial genius.

There have been many attempts to make thought leadership more manageable. These range from the full fledged research labs of large organizations (e.g.,  Xerox PARC, Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Bell Labs) to various research centers in professional services firms (e.g., Deloitte Center for the Edge, McKinsey Global Institute, Accenture Global Research).

Most of these examples separate research from practice and model themselves along academic lines. While they often produce excellent work and contribute to the overall market reputation of their parent organizations, they have been less successful at leveraging the experience of their parents or at feeding their insights back into their organizations. These examples also stamp thought leadership as a luxury available only to the largest and most successful organizations.

Where we went off track

While we can recognize the value of thought leadership as a component of innovation and of attracting new customers, we’ve had less success in transforming thought leadership into something systematic and manageable. While the end products of thought leadership are attractive, they shed limited light on what practices contribute to those end products.

Thought leadership presents a situation where working backwards isn’t helpful. Seeing the marketing and reputational value of a published article, senior executives will call their Chief Marketing Officers and order an article for the next issue of the Harvard Business Review. Wise CMOs, recognizing that this request has not come from someone named Gates, or Buffet, or Welch, will negotiate a more plausible timeline, identify some plausible topics, and search for potential authors within the organization.

With a great deal of luck and effort, this approach might yield an article in a year or so. Successful or not, marketing has now come to own the thought leadership problem. If the focus remains on the end products, which is likely, marketing will pursue opportunities to create materials that can easily be used as marketing and sales collateral. Perhaps they will enlist help from customer service or training groups to leverage their materials as input to the process as well.

This is a classic confusion of form over substance. At an extreme, we see such nonsense as Gartner Group trumpeting TLM (thought leadership marketing) as the next frontier for IT services marketing. Somewhat more sensibly, we see a variety of marketing and PR consultants pushing thought leadership as a key marketing strategy. Some good recent examples include:

Getting back on track

Whatever the marketing value of thought leadership, it is secondary to the operational value of increasing the effectiveness of how an organization learns from and disseminates practice. When you recast thought leadership as a core operating principle instead of ancillary marketing program, several implication follow. First, it changes what you recognize as relevant data. Second, it changes the kinds of support you provide to your front line practitioners. Finally, it shapes the practices you promote among your workforce.

Where you see data

A survey of current customers or prospects often passes for data in faux thought leadership attempts. Or, a few thin paragraphs passing as a case study. The insights that fuel real thought leadership flow from the interaction of rich data and penetrating questions. Those are typically found at the edges of current practice.

Organizations will find their richest data in the histories and traces of those projects that challenge their capabilities and are placed in the hands of their most adept staff. It’s often difficult to know in advance which projects will fall into this category. More often, it’s easier to predict that certain efforts will likely be routine.

How you support the field

The best time to collect this rich field data is as it’s being generated. The greater the delay between action and reflection, the more that real insight is displaced by revisionist history. Organizationally, you can provide systems and tools that make it simpler to capture and catalog working papers and work products as they are created. Second, organizations can set aside the time and create expectations that professionals will reflect on their work as they perform it.

What practices make a difference

Despite the fervent wishes of bureaucrats, the kind of reflection and learning from practice that fuel meaningful thought leadership won’t map into standard operating procedures or fixed processes. It is much more fruitful to think in terms of practices to encourage. At the team level, for example, After Action Reviews are a simple practice to amplify learning among the team.

Individual practices can range from debriefing a meeting over a beer to maintaining a journal of questions and reflections. The journal could be as simple as a Moleskine notebook or as extensive as a private blog.

Payoff to knowledge workers and their organizations

Treating thought leadership as a marketing responsibility does create organizational value, but at a significant cost in terms of effort and disruption within the organization. Marketing staff need the full support and participation of those line contributors generating the experience on which thought leadership must be based but if they drive thought leadership efforts from their immediate needs they risk alienating those on whom they most depend with requests for substantial incremental work.

On the other hand, treating thought leadership as an operating principle better aligns the demands on those core contributors. Now, rich, high quality input to thought leadership efforts are relevant components of ongoing work. Moreover, this approach enhances individual and organizational learning as a primary goal; thought leadership becomes a valuable side effect of doing work, instead of being an onerous additional requirement.

Professionals grow and develop through reflective practice. They build and test mini-theories of how their actions lead to outcomes. In a simpler world, that reflection was built on the slow accretion of experience. In today’s world, it is more effective to build on a foundation of explicit reflection.

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Checklists for more systematic knowledge work

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande, Atul

The idea of a simple checklist to raise the quality of a routine practice seems innocuous enough. It also seems to rankle those with lots of education and experience as an unnecessary intrusion on their autonomy.

The canonical example is the story of the effort at Johns Hopkins Hospital to reduce central line infections in critical care settings. A central line is a catheter inserted into someone’s jugular vein in order to deliver medications. It’s a routine step for many patients in a critical care unit. It’s also a primary source of infection for patients in hospitals. While inserting a central line is straightforward for someone with the proper training, medical professionals will skip steps in the hustle and bustle. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at Hopkins, developed a five-point checklist of the steps necessary to avoid central-line infections.

There’s absolutely nothing on the list that practitioners aren’t already trained to do and absolutely nothing controversial about the steps called for. Many of those professionals considered it an insult to have the obvious pointed out to them in written form. Yet when this checklist was deployed at Hopkins, central line infections dropped from 11% of patients to zero. Comparable results have been routinely achieved elsewhere.

Gawande reported these results first in an article in The New Yorker. In this book he expands on that story to look at

  • the origins of the modern checklist in WWII aviation
  • multiple examples of checklists deployed in other health care settings
  • the challenges inherent in developing checklists that work well in complicated environments
  • the difficulties in gaining meaningful acceptance of checklists among highly autonomous professionals

We live in an increasingly complicated and faster-paced world. But our memories are limited and fallible. The right piece of paper in the right place can compensate for those limitations and increase our capacity to deal with that world. The first balancing act is to design a checklist that increases our capacity to handle a situation significantly more than it increases the load on our limited memories. Pronovost’s checklist only touched on the five items most critical to preventing infections. It made no attempt to spell out every possible step in the process.

A checklist shouldn’t be confused with a procedure manual. Avoiding that confusion is an essential element in making organizational acceptance of checklists possible. Checklists are intended to improve and systematize the performance of those who are already proficient. In themselves, they are poor tools for developing proficiency in those still learning their craft.

This confusion between checklist and procedure is at the root of most resistance to efforts to deploy checklists in suitable settings.  Unfortunately, Gawande contributes to this confusion himself when he conflates checklists with project plans. Both are useful documents  but they serve different purposes and are constructed differently. I’d suggest that you skip the chapter on "The End of the Master Builder" on first reading. It makes the core argument clearer.

Even when properly designed and targeted as relevant aids for the proficient, there is still a change management and leadership challenge to address in deploying a checklist to support more effective practice. While Gawande offers a number of excellent stories and examples of implementing checklists in various settings, he isn’t looking for or tuned into the relevant details of organizational change.  This book provides excellent insight into why checklists work and what to think about when constructing them. Expect to look elsewhere for comparable advice on managing the associated change. Expect to need to do so as well.

As compelling as the rational evidence for checklists may be, orchestrating their adoption into the work practices of professionals presents a large hurdle. The hurdle, of course, is emotional. A checklist can be viewed as diminishing one’s expertise rather than as reinforcing it. Reversing that perception for both the expert and the rest of the organization is the key.

Chromakey and knowledge work

I came across the following YouTube video the other day while checking out Boing Boing (one of my favorite sources of interesting and provocative stuff).

Fascinating in its own right, but I keep coming back to it and thinking what it also has to say about the world we work in. Some thoughts:

  • Don’t let the scenery distract you from the action
  • Focus on a powerful story to lead your audience’s attention where you want it to go
  • Anchor your stories in people and their interaction

What do you think?

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The problem of incentives in knowledge work

WFEE09: Knowledge Wall/Gallery

Image by The Value Web Photo Gallery via Flickr

I’m struggling with the issue of incentives in organizations trying to promote improved knowledge management and more effective use of new collaboration tools such as blogs, wikis, and the like. Invariably, after an early spurt of activity and experimentation with the new systems, usage plateaus and talk turns to devising incentive systems to promote more participation. Behind the talk is the assumption that we can treat knowledge workers as rational economic actors and that the proper incentives will produce the desired behaviors.

The problem is the raft of research demonstrating that we are anything but rational economic actors. Spend any time digesting the insights in such work as Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational or Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, to pick two recent examples, and you conclude that most organizational incentive systems are naively designed at best and actively harmful at worst. While carrots and sticks might be marginally useful if you need to crank out widgets or insurance claims, they aren’t for any work requiring significant creativity or discretion. Yet, we keep trying to devise simple reward systems and wondering why they fail.

The underlying issue is that focusing on designing incentives feels safer and easier than dealing with the hard managerial work of sitting down one-on-one with the individuals and planning out how to integrate these new tools into the day-to-day execution of knowledge work tasks. As Tom Davenport put it so pithily in Thinking for a Living the default managerial approach to knowledge workers is to "hire smart people and leave them alone." If the quality of knowledge work done by an organization is, in fact, a key differentiator in overall success, then this laissez-faire approach to managing knowledge work isn’t likely to be sustainable.

Behavioral complexities of knowledge work

There are actually two problems to be solved. The first is to get a handle on the behaviors that contribute to more effective knowledge work. The second is to understand what kinds of feedback will influence whether knowledge workers engage in the desired behaviors.

Consider the kinds of behaviors that you might see in an organization using its existing knowledge more effectively than average. Activities you might expect to see include:

  • Seeking out and finding experts elsewhere in the organization who can answer your questions
  • Experts in the organization making time to respond to questions they receive
  • Experts recognizing when repeated questions signal an opportunity for a new service or a deeper problem to address
  • Project teams experimenting with and adopting new practices such as After Action Reviews as part of their standard project plans
  • Individual knowledge workers revising their work practices to more easily find and incorporate previous work into new work

Multiplying examples would only reinforce the point that these behaviors are significantly more subtle and complex than those that find their way into typical incentive systems.

Rewarding something because it happens to  be measurable isn’t going to help, even if that is the all too common response in organizations that have fallen hostage to empty dictums that "you manage what you measure." You manage what you talk about. If that conversation can be boiled down to where the needle is pointing on one or two dials, then you live in a much simpler world than I do and I envy you.

In my world, there is a complicated and often mysterious relationship between what people do and what happens sometime later. You invest in getting to know the key people at a small software vendor. They get an email inquiry from a company interested in updating their approach to knowledge management that the software vendor forwards to you. You reply to the email, have a brief phone conversation, develop and submit a proposal over the weekend, and, three days later, land a substantial contract with someone you still haven’t met face-to-face. How do you map that into a performance measurement system?

Consider another example. A consulting firm is encouraging experts to submit their best work to a central document repository. Your call center expert responds and contributes an Excel spreadsheet used to analyze operating performance in an outbound call center. One of your smartest consultants (with an Ivy League Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics) grabs the spreadsheet for another call center project. Unfortunately, the Ph.D. mathematician doesn’t have time to discuss the document with the resident expert and proceeds to employ it incorrectly. Client damage control ensues. Is this a design flaw in the knowledge management system? A training problem? A developmental opportunity? Was it a staffing problem when our Ph.D was originally assigned to the project? What measurement system would signal this problem before it occurred? What measurement system would reveal the problem after the fact?

Focus on better feedback systems instead of incentives

You certainly want feedback systems that provide a picture of how knowledge workers in your organization are interacting with the tools and information you make available to them. Better yet, these feedback systems ought to let you detect and deconstruct patterns of practice over time. What you can’t get is a manageably small set of measures that you can reliably link to performance. You can’t operate on autopilot.

Two approaches come to mind. Both assume that individual knowledge workers have primary responsibility for figuring out how they contribute to creating value for the organization. Secondary responsibility for coaching knowledge workers through this effort lies with their immediate supervisors.

The first approach is to look for successful patterns of use within the existing knowledge sharing system. Use After Action Reviews or other techniques to examine and evaluate how a particular knowledge sharing opportunity played out.

The second approach is to add some basic instrumentation to the knowledge sharing system. Make it simple to count things like blog posts made, comments made, documents contributed, documents consulted, and pointers shared. Use that data to distill and identify patterns of practice worth emulating. For example, some knowledge workers might be adding value by connecting and integrating materials in the system to create new knowledge. Others might be helping by weeding out obsolete information or adding important caveats. There won’t be a single pattern of successful usage that all should emulate. It is much more likely that there will be multiple patterns. The managerial task is to help knowledge workers identify the patterns that they are most adept at, helping them refine their usage patterns over time, and monitoring the system as a whole to ensure that there is a good balance among usage patterns.

This is clearly a more complex and judgmental task than simply rewarding everyone for contributing more content. But it feels more suited to the actual complexities of doing and managing knowledge work in today’s environment.



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Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink, Daniel H.

Pink takes a look at much the same evidence base as Lawrence and Nohria do in Driven with a slightly different purpose. His take is that organizations rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) at the expense of tapping into much more powerful intrinsic motivators. He is less interested in building a robust model of human behavior in organization than he is in trying to distill some practical short term advice. It makes for an easier read than Driven and Pink is a much better story-teller than Lawrence and Nohria. On the other hand, it sacrifices some important depth in the process.

Pink was also a speaker at last year’s TED conference; the video from that talk gives you the gist of his argument in 20 minutes:

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Choosing to draw your own maps: a review of Seth Godin’s Linchpin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin, Seth

Seth Godin continues his quest to become the next Tom Peters. Linchpin is the latest installment of Godin’s advice to today’s knowledge workers and aspiring entrepreneurs. Here he shifts his focus from broader issues of marketing to the individual.

Godin is the latest in a long line of thinkers who’ve been arguing that the way we’ve designed and organized the current economic system has reached its limits and needs fixing. Godin is less interested in where the system as a whole is going, than in what you as an individual can do to carve out a more satisfying perch now.

The economy of the twentieth century was 0.01% insight, 0.09% design, and 99% execution. Mass production begat mass markets begat mass media. What that system demands is an occasional new idea plus a way to turn out lots of copies. There’s a playbook and most people have a tightly prescribed assignment to follow. Color outside the lines and the system, by design, will grind you up and spit you out.

In the economic system that has been slowly emerging over the last several decades, the proportions between insight, design, and execution are shifting. Insight and design, always important, become more so. Equally important, the system as a whole operates at a higher speed. It makes less sense to invest heavily in optimizing for execution in a business model that will become obsolete in a few years. What this all leads to is a need for more people who can see a bigger picture of how their world hooks into the broader system and can improvise when the unexpected inevitably occurs. In Godin’s parlance – linchpins.

There are two particular strengths in Godin’s approach. One, he’s very clear that choosing to act as a linchpin will entail a great deal of both intellectual and emotional work. This is not about visualizing all the good things you wish would flow in your direction. This is about grasping how the system is evolving and seizing the opportunities it opens up.

Because change is occurring throughout the system, seizing opportunities is not constrained to an elite, however you choose to define the elite. We’re all equipped to see and exploit opportunities to make things work better. We are all capable, as Godin puts it, of "creating order out of chaos." There’s certainly more than enough chaos to work with.

The second strength of Godin’s approach is in focusing on the emotional work it will take to become and succeed as a linchpin. Fitting into a carefully defined role is safe and imposes little apparent emotional cost. Choosing to look freshly at the territory and draw new maps is scary. Explorers end up with arrows in their backs. Godin understands this and devotes a key central chapter to dealing with resistance. Significantly, he locates the primary source of resistance in our own hearts and minds. He opens this chapter with Steve Jobs’s admonition that "real artists ship." Excuses are easier to deal with than feedback on finished work, so we become adept at handling excuses instead of finishing.

Godin stays true to his argument and does not offer a step-by-step action plan. That, as they say in math class, is  left as an exercise for the reader.


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Patti Anklam on The Year of Personal Net Work

Patti Anklam and I have reconnected after first meeting several years ago. We navigate in the same circles and our networks overlap, but I hadn’t been carefully following her work. My mistake and I’ve fixed that now. Here’s a recent piece from her with a very good overview presentation on moving from a general understanding of networks to concrete actions. Worth taking a look at both for the content and for some good ideas on presentation design.

Chris Brogan writes about his strategy for deepening his personal networks. He starts off his list of tips with this one:

"Devote two hours a week to this effort. If, out of the 60 hours an average person works, you can t find two for this, reconsider how you re running your day.

This is not the only new year’s resolution I’ve seen along this line. As we become more and more connected through social media, the more we are aware of what those connections mean.

My new year’s resolution? I’m resolving to share more of my thinking, especially about personal networks. Here’s a slide show from this past October I hope you will enjoy.

Personal Network Management Km Forum Oct 2009

The Year of Personal Net Work
Tue, 12 Jan 2010 20:52:00 GMT

Jordan Frank on ‘responsibility to collaborate’ – lessons in enterprise 2.0 implementations

Jordan Frank is VP of Sales and Business Development for Traction Software. Last Fall, Paula Thornton ( @rotkapchen) interviewed Jordan during Traction’s annual user group meeting.

Jordan has been working with a variety of knowledge intensive organizations over the much of the last decade. Here he shares some of his insights on the interplay between technology capabilities and knowledge work practices.

Although there are some pretty good sound bites such as "responsibility to collaborate" and "documents as knowledge traps", i would encourage you to spend time not only listening carefully, but also reflecting on Jordan’s observations.

You need to develop a well-tuned design sense to take full advantage of the technologies intended to support collaborative and creative knowledge work. You need to be especially careful to avoid the temptations to over-engineer the technology or the process. The examples that Jordan shares are rooted in the augmentation philosophies of Doug Engelbart rather than the automation philosophies of Frederick Taylor.