posted 22 Jun 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 9
Supply and demand
Following on from last month’s article about the cultural barriers to knowledge flow, Chris Collison examines some demandside syndromes
In the last edition, I wrote a flowery article about two cultural hindrances to the flow of knowledge. First we looked at ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where people are reluctant to share for fear of getting ‘cut down’ by their peers. Then we explored ‘shrinking violet syndrome’, where people are overcome by a sense of corporate humility, and don’t believe that they have anything worthwhile to share with others.
But what if we could nurture our organisational garden such that the poppies felt safe to grow and the violets stopped shrinking and started flourishing? Would that solve our knowledge-sharing problems?
Unfortunately not. Addressing these two floral syndromes would stimulate the supply of knowledge, good practices, lessons and ideas, but if there is no demand – if nobody is interested in what is offered – then all of our corporate horticulture was to no avail.
This month, I want to look at two syndromes which affect the demand-side of the equation. In doing so, I shall reluctantly have to ditch the garden metaphor.
The first of our demand-side syndromes is familiar to all of us: ‘not invented here’. When the human body is faced with an organ transplant it naturally generates antibodies, which attempt to reject this foreign body. Sometimes the same can be said of our behaviours when we are faced with an idea or a good practice from another part of the organisation, or even from outside the organisation. Our antibodies reveal themselves in comments like:
Ah, you don’t understand – we’re different here, we couldn’t possibly learn from you;
That might have worked for you in that context, but it will never work here; and
We have our own unique culture – and unique problems.
Sometimes what lies behind this mindset is a reality that ‘actually we quite like coming up with unique answers’. It’s far more satisfying to invent our own solution than it is to borrow and adapt solutions from elsewhere – where is the fun in that?
Let’s look a bit more closely at some of the reasons we reject these ideas and good practices, so that we can recognise them in our own behaviours. (With thanks to Victor Newman, who wrote on this topic back in 2006),
First, we react against the idea of a 100 per cent solution. We want to feel that there is scope for adapting something so that we can own it. If you are sharing a good practice with another part of the business, learn the art of pausing after 80 per cent, and asking for their thoughts to refine it further – you’ll find that acceptance and engagement levels both rise.
Second, we are quick to reject ideas when the vocabulary used to describe them is different to our own. ‘Oh, that’s based on a different model for change management, so it won’t fit here’. It’s easy to listen for what’s different, rather than what is similar.
Third, we sometimes reject ideas not because of their content, but because of the process used to generate and present them. ‘Sorry, we just don’t do mind-maps here.’
The second demand-side syndrome is prevalent in macho cultures and goes under the official name of ‘real men don’t ask directions’, but is more commonly known as – TomTom syndrome!
Imagine the scene: you’re on your way to a dinner party at a friend’s house; you left home a little late, so now you’re in a hurry and the quality of your driving is deteriorating. Your partner is unsettled and tells you she would prefer to get there in one piece than not at all. Now, just to add to the tension, you have a nagging thought that you might have taken a wrong turn. You carry on though, hoping that you’ll happen upon a road-sign or a landmark, but none appear. Finally, your partner breaks the silence and tells you what you already know. You’re lost! ‘no problem’, she says triumphantly, pronouncing the solution: ‘pull over by that man over there and we’ll ask for directions’.
Last year, TomTom reported sales of more than 11 million personal navigation devices. You can see why.
Of course, it’s not exclusively a male problem, but it does seem to be the case that men suffer from this syndrome more than women. Help is a four-letter word and we don’t like using it.
We have all had times when we have that nagging sense that ‘there might be a better way to do this’, or ‘perhaps someone else has already figured this one out’. What stops us from asking around for solutions and ideas for improvement? Sometimes it’s a sense that we’re supposed to know the answers:
If I ask for help, my colleagues will think I’m incompetent;
I didn’t get where I am today by admitting weaknesses;
In this organisation, the successful ones are the ones who have been self-sufficient; or
… however, I’ll be happy to share my problem once I’ve solved it.
So what can be done to overcome these two syndromes and stimulate the demand-side of the market?
Well, there’s no silver bullet, but there are a number of KM approaches that can be used to challenge old habits and develop new ones. Offers and requests, knowledge fairs and internal benchmarking can be used to surface the potential for sharing and create a sense of reciprocal peer pressure. Communities of practice can generate a safe place to request help. Leaders can role-model this and demonstrate their commitment in the questions they ask: ‘before I sign off on this business case, can you tell me who you have spoken to and learned from in other business teams?’.
Finally, here’s an example of a business leader who took things a step further, taken from No More Consultants. We know more than we think.
“A business unit leader in Amoco recognized that insular ‘not-invented-here’ behaviour was limiting the potential of his business, which existed within a group of around 100 business units in the newly-merged BP Amoco. He wanted to create a culture of curiosity, encouraging his staff to look beyond the boundaries of their own business unit. He decided to create a simple monthly recognition scheme, under the banner of ‘steal with pride’. The award was given to a member of staff who could demonstrate that they had found a good practice from a different business unit, applied it, and created value. Each story would be celebrated on the intranet, and the winner received an award in the form of a cuddly parrot, which would sit on the desk of the winner for a month (prompting questions from passers-by), before moving onto the next winner, and leaving in its place, a solid gold ‘pirate’ doubloon worth several hundred dollars – which was theirs to keep.
The parrot became a talking point, as did the stories which it was awarded for. As a result, month-by-month, that leader demonstrated his commitment to learning from others, and signalled his support for stealing with pride. The cost? Three thousand dollars per year, plus the cost of that cuddly parrot.”
So there we have it. In our magical mystery tour around the barriers to knowledge sharing, we’ve managed to navigate our way from the tranquillity of the flower beds to piracy on the high seas – and all without stopping to ask for directions.
Chris Collison is the director of Knowledgeable Ltd and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.chriscollison.com
The steal with pride story, and all four syndromes, are available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/chriscollison