posted 2 May 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 8
Not invented here? No problem
Introducing solutions to knowledge-sharing problems can be hampered by a ‘not invented here’ syndrome among the beneficiaries. Victor Newman discusses the problem and suggests a number of approaches.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given in corporate life as a knowledge management professional was simply to stop trying to sell ‘100 per cent solutions’ to experts, especially when working in global, cross-functional teams across the organisation.
My mentor told me that unless they were scared enough to listen, they would never forgive me for being right and for knowing something they did not. It was good advice. However, I found myself wondering what the costs were for the organisation of having to continually re-invent the obvious and how much of its resources were being wasted building replica systems and processes that we could have more productively invested elsewhere.
Just how much of this waste was down to local egos that could not see the global perspective? And how much was it actually costing? I also began to meditate on the value of an MBA education…
This article is designed to share some of the secret techniques that underpin the iCafé (innovation café) ‘knowledge activist’ approach to building a knowledge culture across national and technical boundaries.
ICafes are intended to help teams and organisations in the process of building their own practical innovation strategies for themselves through structured conversations intended to engage everyone in developing and sharing emergent knowledge. The approach is based on three observations about change:
When we ask people to visualise successful innovation and elicit the detail involved, their shared ownership of the outcomes becomes personal and we can engage them in making it happen;
That people already have many of the answers for implementing new ideas in their own heads, but when we impose packaged methods, we trigger natural resistance;
When people invent their own method for implementing new ideas, they are more likely to make them happen.
Not invented here
There are several distinct problems involved with trying to work with highly-educated technical experts in knowledge-intense situations: problems that can be categorised as ‘not invented here’ (NIH) behaviours. The difficulty is that we can get trapped into an ‘ain’t it a shame’ mode that accepts this block to the sharing of knowledge as though we were simply discussing the weather, instead of trying to develop practical methods to overcome it. I will begin by characterising forms of NIH and methods for overcoming these.
NIH-1 is when local ‘experts’ will not allow a problem to be expressed in a language or form intelligible to outsiders – people who lack their own specialist expertise or experience.
This leads to an intellectual catch-22. While ‘outsiders’ are alienated by the language of the experts in this group, the experts themselves are likewise alienated, too. This is because the language of the solution clearly comes from ‘another place’, an alien place as far as those local experts are concerned. This lines up with the observation that no-one could possibly understand their local issues.
It is this ‘otherness’ around the language of the solution that prevents a solution from another context or business-sector from successful transfer and implementation, hence the difficulty of transferring good or what appears to be best practice from one organisation to another, even when it is an obvious life-saver.
An ‘invented here’ partial solution that often works is to facilitate a team from a recipient organisation into building a prototype solution to the problem and only afterwards exposing them to the generic solution that you already had in your back-pocket.
It does seem as though many experts cannot easily visualise, recognise or understand a potential solution until they have gone through the pain of trying to invent one for themselves. The technique of a master at this point is never to talk about knowledge management (KM) unless invited to do so and to deliberately fail to give a name to any generic solution they have. Why? So that they can name it for themselves and thereby start to feel a sense of ownershipfor it and act as ambassadors when they begin to spread it around the organisation.
NIH-2 is that you must never present technical experts with a finished product to sign-off in short order, even if the solution is technically correct, just because you yourself are an expert in your field.
As my mentor put it: "They will never forgive you for presenting them with a 100 per cent solution, so just don’t do it. Only ever give them a 30 per cent solution that basically defines it, then leave a 70 per cent ‘space’ that they can fill with their own contribution – without making it too obvious that you have actually defined the solution for them." The beauty of the 30/70 rule is that of creating a vacuum that naturally draws individuals’ own specialist contributions expressed in their own language.
NIH-3, the third challenge, is that the moment you try to teach a problem-framing technique, or any technique that is outside their field of expertise, they will automatically rubbish it.
One approach is to appear to invent a technique in real-time. For example, I learnt the hard way that although ‘root-cause analysis’ was the best approach to understanding the causes of failure of a project, the fact that the root-cause analysis technique came from the automotive industry (as opposed to their own) meant that it had to be dismissed if formally introduced with an explanation of its pedigree.
The ultimate solution was to introduce the technique through demonstration as though inventing the technique for the first time, using Post-it notes from an already-used pile apparently left from a previous meeting.
A variant on this approach of apparent timeliness is to encourage an elite group within the organisation to ‘invent’ the technique and apply it themselves. Then, allow the viral marketing of the associations between the elite group and its usefulness to build a halo-effect that encourages emulation and wider adoption.
Since scientists and specialists, in particular, feel threatened by ‘meta-techniques’ (that can be applied almost anywhere) and their language – and must therefore kill them – I used to find a colleague with a real problem that needed resolving, work with them using the technique that I wanted to introduce, then get them to tell the story of how they had succeeded through the use of that technique – then respond to requests to explain and share it more widely.
NIH-4 is when senior managers commission a retrospective return on investment (ROI) exercise on a technical or system implementation, but find it difficult to identify and quantify the real impact in the metrics chosen after the investment, which upon deeper examination turn out to be meaningless.
In other words, when we attempt to solve a problem by purchasing an expensive technology or system, we are perpetually surprised that the original problem remains and new problems emerge. If we combine the futility of imposing a retrospective ROI exercise with the observation that no metrics can run for longer than six months without being corrupted and encouraging cynical, unintended behaviours, what is the solution to the issue of measuring utility or value of an investment?
The problem with performance measurement after an investment has been made is that while it involves key participants in terms of the implementation’s physiology, it excludes them from being engaged psychologically in changing the way they work. The answer is to involve participants in visualising a successful implementation before the investment is made and in planning the necessary performance by working backwards to unpack the nature of their own contribution – then making it explicit and documented.
1. Trying to work across technical boundaries involves leaders attempting to work in the midst of a linguistic war between specialists. In the absence of a shared, over-arching meta-language for framing problems, the leader needs to consider creating a shared space in which this linguistic conflict can be overcome;
2. Consider the use of the 30/70 rule, where only 30% of the solution is specified and the remaining 70% space is deliberately structured to draw experts’ contributions instead of their opposition. This may involve building a prototype and then erasing the draft content from it before sharing it;
3. When trying to introduce a best-practice from another organisation, first invite your audience to develop a prototype ‘straw man’ solution that meets the optimal criteria of the model you want to introduce, then help them critique and improve their version before you show them the optimal solution. What this does is educate their expectations around a solution so that the advantages are evident, instead of them just resisting the optimal solution. The risk that they might come up with something better, is worth taking;
4. An apparently ‘naive’ or spontaneous introduction of a problem-framing technique that introduces clarity for a group of experts will disarm suspicion of overt manipulation in an expert audience. They may have to sleep on it before deploying it and you must pretend that you’re not upset that they refuse to do the obvious;
5. If you want to deliver measurable and meaningful value or returns, involve the key participants psychologically through visualising success and work backwards to unpack the dependencies that have to be managed and their own responsibilities in making it happen, before the investment is made;
6. Timing is everything. When considering applying the advice in this article, do not be prepared to demolish all the delicate relationship capital you have built up by making a frontal assault on the NIH culture: the more you push, the harder they must resist. Find another way.
Victor Newman is the former chief learning officer for pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer. He is now a consultant in strategic knowledge management and innovation, working with David Gurteen to develop iCafe strategic conversation. He is also a visiting professor in knowledge management and innovation to the Open University Business School in the UK, as well as author of ‘The Knowledge Activist’s Handbook – Adventures from the Knowledge Trenches’, published by Capstone/Wiley. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org