posted 10 Jun 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 9
Just-in-time knowledge sharing
For knowledge-sharing efforts between project teams to be successful they must take issues of timing, group psychology and documentation into account. Victor Newman describes his experiences with and the principles behind the baton-passing technique that aims to capture and share knowledge while it is still ripe.
I have always felt that the best diagnostic for judging an organisation’s understanding of knowledge management is to examine how an organisation learns from its projects. Baton passing is a KM technique for capturing the freshest knowledge from a product team that has just gone through a major decision milestone. This methodology ensures that the team’s knowledge is rapidly transferred in real time to a new team approaching similar objectives to qualitatively enhance their performance. This technique has unusual features, such as the way it integrates knowledge about knowledge management, innovation politics and team psychology. With the recent wider application of baton passing outside the pharmaceutical industry into legal and financial services, I will share some of the background thinking that led to its recent form while outlining the technique itself.
A few years ago, I was invited to review the output of a three-day learning exercise conducted in a global packaging business with a successful product team that had just taken a new product to market. With a triumphant flourish, the facilitator pointed to the Learnings Proforma stuck on sheets of paper around the room. He shared the ‘wonderful’ metric that they had successfully documented 192 learnings from the team. My face went white with shock at the futility of this exercise. The facilitator was under the impression that the more lessons he documented, the better. Naturally, the next step was to embalm these 192 documented learnings along with 4,000 similar findings in the learnings database, which is where they were likely to stay. When I subsequently reviewed the database I discovered that certain key lessons had been ‘learnt’ up to eight times by different teams. Clearly, documenting learnings is only part of a bigger, more effective solution that requires an understanding the limitations of computers and how teams actually think and behave under pressure.
I decided that it was time to take a different course, and to improve upon an approach I had prototyped on a high-fliers’ strategic-change programme. The problem with the traditional approach to KM, which is to document everything, is that it ignores what we know about how we think, and therefore has little impact on change management and the psychology of product teams.
If we review what we know about how managers think, managers tend to:
Make decisions based on incomplete data, even when additional data is available;
Use experience to interpret problems, ignoring later data even when presented;
Solve the next problem as it appears, instead of visualising all the problems within a complete sequence to anticipate the future in detail.
My experiences with product teams taking products to market has taught me that they tend to share certain idiosyncrasies that might usefully be combined under the heading of an ‘heroic-martyr culture’ sharing the following generic features:
Initial insane confidence and independence – Teams often feel that they don’t need anyone else’s ‘wheel’ or process methodology, and that there’s nothing they could possibly find useful in someone else’s experience. Specialists tend to believe in the uniqueness of their project and that they won’t make the mistakes made by others. They argue that their project is different. The further away the decision-making milestone is that determines whether the project receives continued investment or is closed down, the less concerned project managers are about necessary details.
Hell is for heroes – Innovation cannot be achieved without creating hell for everyone involved; chaos and conflict is inevitable. In fact don’t team diagnostics suggest that this is normal and acceptable?
Investment decision-making gets personal – It is traditional for there to be conflict between team experts and senior technical decision makers, the gatekeepers on investment decisions. It is often said that these senior decision makers used to know what they were doing before they became too senior, while team specialists actually know what they are doing. The conflict may even be a healthy part of the ritual posturing of management by posing awkward questions.
It is part of the team’s job to be a passionate advocate of its project, and for senior decision makers to be negative and ask difficult questions.
Been there, done that – Taking a project to a key decision milestone is a symbolic punch in the career ticket. Having negotiated all of the above and survived, perhaps with the additional cachet of having been part of a project that actually made it to market, chances are you may never get asked to do it again. This is a steady leak and decay of potentially useful knowledge that remains tacit.
By putting all of these features together from the way we tend to think to the components of the heroic-martyr syndrome of project managers and teams, it is clear that we have the potential to institutionalise a self-reinforcing cycle of incompetence.
This ensures that project progression remains problematic with repetitive cycles of accidentally engineered crises.
Having understood this, I began to design an approach to capture and share learnings with the following characteristics:
Fast and dynamic;
Visual and intuitive;
Knowledge building as opposed to sharing. Involving those with a hunger for knowledge and those with something to share on building something new;
Active engagement of those who know, and those who want to know;
Documented commitment to outcomes.
The baton-passing technique involves a meeting designed to last three hours. Timing is important, the hunger for learnings from a recipient team working towards a decision milestone must be co-ordinated with the pregnancy of experience from a donor team. The value of knowledge is like that of fruit: it is determined by matching the timing of the fruit’s ripening with the emerging hunger of its potential customers. The appetite of the recipient team is influenced by three events that build interest. This is supported by a definition of the necessary deliverables and success criteria for reaching the decision milestone, which are usually product profile, process capability, market analysis and ROI.
The recipient team’s hunger is built with a series of planned activities. The first event is a structured interview with the project manager to alert them to the nature of the deliverables they must satisfy at the decision milestone and the sources of information available to prepare for this meeting. Second, a 45-minute process overview provides the team with a generic route and steps to negotiate if it is to satisfy its senior decision makers. Third, a three-hour workshop with a review based on traffic lights (go, wait, stop) representing milestone deliverables and confidence-levels. A dependency-mapping exercise completes the workshop identifying the key dependencies that trigger resource commitments.
By this time, the core team understands where it is going and what it is going to take, and has begun to formulate its own questions about its knowledge and capability gaps. The clock is ticking. The optimal timing for the baton-passing meeting varies by industry sector. My experience so far shows that the time given to prepare the incoming, recipient product team varies between 18-15 months ahead of the impending decision milestone. We have also identified that a time limit exists. Once a team has achieved a post-decision milestone, knowledge must be shared with another team within four months otherwise it will start to decay. Delaying baton-passing activities beyond this timeframe can lead the potential donor to deliver constructive fantasy or groupthink in its accounts, especially when a project has failed. In this instance, even replaying experiences through a highs-and-lows timeline exercise is not an adequate solution. Timing is therefore a key element for successful baton passing.
The three-hour baton-passing meeting involves the use of creative silence brainstorming to generate lessons learnt from experienced donors and questions from novice recipient teams. If there is no shared generic time-to-market process to give the learnings and questions context, this must be constructed prior to the event. This is usually captured on a large roll of brown paper with top-level process stages named specifically above the minor activities that define them. This provides the process context for documenting the baton-passing meeting.
The donor and recipient teams concurrently brainstorm their key learnings and questions and locate them on the generic time-to-market process using colour-coded post-it notes. Each key stage within the process is reviewed to check the questions and learnings are understood. Relevant learnings are connected to key questions, and then gaps are reviewed and resolved, such as questions without associated learnings and learnings without questions. Sometimes recipients find that they don’t understand the donor team’s solution, which may be expressed in jargon peculiar to the team’s experience. Teams must work in a way that allows recipients to ask for solutions, or ask for learnings to be restated and defined until they have fully understood them.
The final stage of the meeting is to transfer the post-it notes onto two baton-passing templates. The first is a single sheet called the front-page Lifesaver that allocates high-priority learnings to each top-level-process stage and is an aide-memoire for the team. The second template, the Action Learnings, drills down through each top-level process stage as if they were chapters in a book. It presents the minor activities that define them, and works through all learnings to match them to specific thematic questions. The recipient team reviews these learnings and matches them against their own project. Individual team members then commit to delivering the learning against a pre-defined timeline.
Classic outcomes from baton passing are:
Active redefinition of success criteria for future milestone-decision meetings;
Shorter milestone-decision meetings to deal with exceptions rather than deliverables;
Pre-negotiation of ambiguous deliverables with key stakeholders prior to milestone decision-making meeting;
Partnering of specialists from outgoing and incoming teams. It is very useful to have thinking partners to help work out ideas and problems with the team;
Reduction of excessive product and customer testing, and time wasting;
Earlier closure of projects that cannot meet the specification and redeployment of resources onto the next wave of prototypes;
Better joint-venture projects through greater clarity of outcomes;
Faster time to market. So far, I have recorded reductions of up to 24 per cent on several projects;
Serious reduction in rework due to clear experimental design from the outset;
Smarter project-management leadership, with fewer managers adopting team-biased perspectives to keep work focused on the bigger, strategic picture.
While the knowledge in people’s heads has the potential to deliver innovation, it is the ability to mobilise knowledge into new products and services that generates the essential return on investment. Baton passing is still evolving as a technique, but it already answers the fundamental question about measuring the value of managing knowledge. If knowledge management is the deliberate management of knowledge to deliver specific outcomes, then the outcomes that matter are faster time to market, and ensuring better and more timely decisions are made to optimise the use of our creativity, time and money.
Victor Newman is chief learning officer of the European Pfizer Research University. He can be contacted at email@example.com