Where to focus next?

A few of my clients are preparing to wind down their manufacturing and engineering activities for the Christmas break. This is especially true for my clients in the Southern Hemisphere, where at least half of December is the holiday season. Clients with a retail business model are most likely now planning for the busiest time of the year.

My message today is mainly for the manufacturers heading for a slower season.

What have you ignored or pushed aside during the year because there were other priorities? Take some of these neglected issues and put them on the agenda for discussion with your team. These less-urgent issues could hold value in challenging your assumptions and maybe even your priorities.

These issues are lower priority until something goes wrong. If you could afford to ignore these issues up to now, the chances are that you will again ignore them in the new year. However, ignoring issues that matter to some of your clients or staff or that deserve attention, but there is none to give should simply get attention so that you are not caught off-guard.

So, let me try to rephrase my question.

What issue or topic have you ignored, postponed or delayed?

If addressed, which issues will release energy or build trust in your company?

Suppose you cannot explore these issues because you constantly have more important stuff to attend to. In that case, I urge you to delegate these to people you trust, especially if these issues are important to others in your company. Perhaps by giving somebody else a chance to lead on a matter they care about would boost their confidence and reveal new talent and passion in your organisation.

Strategy means saying “No!”

At the start of this year, I want to share some advice I received from Prof David Maister many years ago. David Maister was an early podcaster in the 2000s and I loved listening to his podcast.

Maister argued that many leaders are trained to say “yes” and then they get stretched so thin that they can no longer be effective. This is probably made worse by a wrong understanding of what servant leadership is about, but that is another story for another day.

Maister’s advice was to say “no”. You do not have to justify your decision unless it is really important. It means that you will have more energy and attention span for the things that remain. Of course, knowing more or less what you are striving for helps to know what to turn down.

If leaders struggle to say no, we can be assured that everybody following the leaders will also be confused, or possibly stretched. In organisations, like a company, this may result in many employees also overcommitting themselves.

Does everybody that depends on your leadership know what to say “no” to? Do they clearly understand what you do not want, or what you think should not receive priority attention? Maybe it is more important to clearly signal what is undesirable than to constantly explain to everyone what your intent is.

I want to challenge my friends, my clients and my fellow innovators. Say “no” first. Be clear about what is off-limits, and about what is a low priority (or not your priority). Then it is easier for everybody else to try and figure out what is desirable, or what is possible with the resources we all have.

If you are too polite to say NO, then say, “I don’t think this commitment would be possible, but I will come back to you in 24 hours with a firm answer”. Then keep your promise to give an answer the next day. Sometimes creating a little space to think will help you figure out whether you really need to agree, or whether you can stick with your “no”!

How you can use Slack and MS Teams to foster knowledge management and information sharing

I am a member of several Slack and MS Teams workspaces, and I am often struck by how little organisations I work with invest in making these digital workspaces valuable instruments to nurture ideas, develop knowledge in a distributed way or share information in a way that saves people time. 

I prefer Slack over Teams, but that is just my opinion. Many of the teams I work with do not have much of choice as their IT departments prefer MS Teams because of its integration with other Microsoft applications.

Digital workspaces as places of sharing information and coordinating activities

Many of these digital workspaces of the organisations I support are almost used more as an extended SMS/Whatsapp communication platform than as an instrument for accumulating knowledge fragments or a distributed learning platform. What I mean is that even when teams have different channels configured, the content of these channels is often more like a short message service. Occasionally documents, URLs or photos are shared, sometimes with a note explaining why people should bother to read it, and other times without any contextual information. There are often long periods between posts, followed by a flurry of activity as the importance of topics increases or wane.

When users express frustration with these platforms, it is usually because they cannot find the right channel to post their contributions to. Or they find the thread structure to be confusing. I find it annoying when people do not reply in a thread of a question, as it clutters a channel with statements that are incoherent and messy. For me, these workspaces are valuable repositories not just of decisions made or actions taken but about context and arguments for and against specific courses of action.

A few drawbacks of digital workspaces

A drawback is that both MS Teams and Slack only allow for a one-level deep threaded conversation, which is very shallow. So, I can reply to your post, but if somebody comments on my reply, then their message is at the same level in the thread as mine. Perhaps this is a good thing because I do not miss the 10-level deep-threaded conversations on the old bulletin boards. Another drawback is that people can quickly shoot down any contributions that somebody else has made without substantiating their claims or contributing to the building out of the idea. I guess this is a challenge with all social media.

Despite these drawbacks, digital workspaces offer an opportunity for teams to improve how they accumulate and develop shared ideas in ways that exceeds what is possible when people are physically working together. Furthermore, these platforms enable teams to both to converge around shared ideas and thematic areas while also encouraging broader scanning and information sharing. By encouraging people to surface small ideas (or weak signals) from within their work domains and the topics they are interested in, new combinations of knowledge modules and ideas can be combined and further developed. By encouraging people to share information, news, photos, impressions and developments from beyond the organisation, potential new networks, topics and trends are made more visible. It thus enables both convergences of interests in the form of deeper conversations and the continuous adjustment of shared mental models while simultaneously encouraging divergence and the exploration of signals from beyond the immediate operational focus of the organisation. It helps a lot if people not only share a link or a document, but a paragraph or a short commentary and what they found interesting or who they think would benefit from reading it.

Workspaces intending to build a community and strengthen its members

In some of the digital workspaces I am active in, the workspace has an intent that goes beyond chatting and just sharing interesting links or documents. Rather, the intent is to build communities around different ideas, topics and activities, and to encourage the members to not only use the content shared in the workspace, but draw in members to contribute to, challenge ideas and use the information shared in their daily practice. In these workspaces, there are channels where people share ideas, links to videos and links to articles that are relevant to many members. But members can ask for help, share personal updates, form their own channels or just visit a channel out of curiosity. What I like about these workspaces is that people don’t just share short messages, they write short essays or mini-blogs about a given topic. And then somebody else writes a response in the form a a short essay. So, when somebody shares a link to a resource, they usually explain why they thought it was interesting or valuable to share. You can read these channels and benefit from the cumulative and unfolding exchange that happened over hours, days or even months.

Some ideas on making the navigation of channels easier

In the better-working shared workspaces there are often channels that are maybe more relevant to sub-groups that are interested in specific topics or themes. Still, these groups are open, so others can observe or just follow the conversation, or leave when they lose interest or have other priorities. I call these topical channels because I can join one of these channels and get an idea of what the sub-community is discussing, what questions people have about the content, and how dynamic the contributions to and uptake of ideas are. Over time, these channels become valuable repositories of ideas, information and resources. (Did you know that Slack is an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge” that was coined by its founder Steward Butterfield?)

I have found that it works well to make a distinction between topical channels, where content, ideas and concepts are discussed, and projects, where people have to work together and where the discussion combines content but also correspondence around dates, tasks, reminders and other project-related chatter. It is not so practical to combine a project channel (that might require fast and frequent communications) with the slower process of exchanging on the content or accumulating different perspectives on a given subject. Whenever I am asked to curate workspaces, I try to split the operations (projects) from the subject or content (topical) channels and also from the more focused or private channels where just a few selected people participate in.

How we organise our channels in Mesopartner

In our Mesopartner Slack workspace, we have denoted channels for topics by starting the channel name with “tp”, “proj” and “Support”. 

  • Tp is for topics that some of us are interested in, like #tp_innovation_systems or #tp_facilitation
  • Proj represents projects that we are working that is focused on certain projects that some of us are working on. 
  • Support is where we help each other for instance #support_apps_software, #support_online_meetings or #support_slack

Because our enterprise spans over countries and timezones, we also have a series of channels for admin, contracts and sharing of travel plans. For instance, I usually check the the #travel channel first every day because all our members share itineraries there. We often share photos and impressions from the places we visit and the people we work with.

My favorite channel is #working_out_loud, where we all regularly share with others what we have planned for the day, and what is in our minds as we start a day. I make a point of posting a message everyday about “what is on my mind this morning” or “what tasks I have dedicated myself to today”. This is not only of interest to my business partners, it even helps me to keep track of my commitments, and my mental state over time.

During the COVID lockdowns we had a #coping_with_covid channel that had a mix of humor but also more serious content in it. After the lockdowns ended, this channel was renamed to #coping_with_external_shocks, and we typically share news from the environments or places where we are working in that channel. 

Beyond sharing – workspaces as decentralised decision-making and knowledge development platforms

Beyond using these workspaces for communications and information sharing, these platforms can be valuable for organisations where the workforce is distributed across space. I recall listening to a podcast interview of Shane Parish with Matt Mullenweg that made a deep impression on me. Matt is the founder of WordPress and Automattic. During the interview, he explained how they used a WordPress-based platform called P2 to enable work teams to develop code, manage projects and make decisions over dozens of timezones and locations in a distributed manner. From Matt, I heard about the concept of asynchronous meetings, where meetings are recorded (in video with transcripts) so that employees in other locations/timezones could listen to the meetings at their own time and then contribute their ideas, suggestions, questions and contributions in the P2 workspace. Matt argues that the idea that everybody must be present to participate in online or physical meetings is a relic of the past. I really love this idea, but I have not worked with any organisation yet using this form of decision-making and content development. But if you think of it, COVID has digitised so many workplaces so fast, yet we still hang on to these old rituals of scheduled meetings, decisions made during meetings, etc.

Perhaps more within our reach is the WordPress approach of using internal blogs or short essays on their P2 workplace channels for technical teams running development projects to share updates, reflect on code, to pose questions and to set priorities. Matt argues that this is very important in their organization, that is both global and yet very local. To make this work, we have to shift from working in shared documents (like MS Word) to working in shared workspaces in the form of blog posts, comments and questions in our topical channels. WordPress uses these internal essays or blogs to transfer updates, progress, snags and experience from one area/timezone/topic to others. It is a cumulative way of building on the ideas expressed by others.

In closing

You may wonder why I wrote a whole blog post about this topic. For me, this post is about reflecting on how most of the organisations I work with develop ideas together and foster shared knowledge development. Most organisations I work with describe themselves as knowledge-intensive, their employees are called knowledge workers. They are promoting the uptake, development and dissemination of new knowledge and technology in the environments they work in. I must be honest; quite a few of the organisations I work with are terrible at fostering ideas, turning concepts into knowledge modules, keeping track of external developments or having any form of distributed knowledge brewery going on. No wonder their workspaces are not the primary place where their people not only learn, but contribute to and get inspiring ideas from.

I run for the door when asked to share a success story, write a case study or contribute to the results management system, and so do many others I know. This is an extremely formal way of capturing knowledge that often leaves out the most important arguments and alternatives that had to be explored along the way.

To be effective in what we do as knowledge intermediaries is that we have to start by fostering workspaces where people can nurture ideas, share information, challenge and contrast ideas, and have deep conversations that allow for the emergence of more coherent mental models and knowledge modules. Not everybody can explain themselves in a meeting, and the online workspace allow people to take their time to organise their thoughts, or to just drop a concern, question or a contribution into a larger conversation.

Building a knowledge community that builds its members is a cumulative process enabled by digital workplaces provided by Slack and MS teams (and WordPress P2 and others). These online workspaces that are now almost ubiquitous are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to foster distributed cognition, idea nurturing, decentralised creation, history of ideas tried and ongoing knowledge module development. Matt Mullenweg would argue that these workspaces enable distributed decision-making that is far more inclusive than our traditional ways of making decisions, arguing in real-time, and requiring everybody to be present when information is shared, alternatives are explored, or decisions are made.

Let me know how you are going to challenge the way your organisation’s digital workspace supports the generation of brewing of new ideas and concepts, the scanning of the horizon for threats, opportunities and weak signals of change, and perhaps even enabling a more distributed form of alternative development, decision-making and information sharing.

The image for this blog post is titled “Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire”, circa 1944-06-06”. It was taken by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent.

This image or file is a work of a United States Coast Guard service personnel or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105, USCG main privacy policy and specific privacy policy for its imagery server).

How to kickstart innovation in my team?

This is the question that I receive most often from leaders. Where do I start with improving innovation in my organisation or department?

Often this goes along with a sigh and a statement like “once upon a time we were very innovative, but then we settled down”.

Often, the leaders that ask me about innovation somehow feel that their own lack of creativity and courage has led to the stagnation of innovation in their area of responsibility. Instead of teaching leaders some of my favourite innovation tricks, concepts or methods, I use this opportunity to rather try and shift their attention to creating the conditions for innovation.

Now innovation tricks, methods and concepts are in oversupply. Just go to the business section in any bookstore and you will find lots of recipe books. But these tricks and recipes are less important if one can induce a cultural shift towards exploration, responsibility and learn about what is possible.

So here is the advice that I regularly dish out.

As a leader, you do not have to announce that things will be different from here on. This just makes it harder for you and the team to learn about what is possible. Also, announcing a new vision and strategy puts the focus on your brilliant strategic skills. Rather avoid this.

Instead, start by modelling what you want your organisational culture to be. Again, no announcements.

Without much fuss, ask some of your teams or leaders

“if you could prioritise investment (time, money, people) in any area of this organisation, where would you want to explore?”.

Then agree on a budget with the people taking responsibility, a time frame, what resources they would need, and feedback mechanisms (how will we which ideas are working, and which are not working as desired). Encourage them to start soon, but to manage their usual responsibilities as well. Now your job is to help the rest of the organisation, like finance, admin, marketing, production or communications to adapt their support offerings and procedures to help this exploration effort. Make sure this effort receives all the support and resources that they need. Use the innovative efforts of one group to also be creative about other areas of the organisation. Your attention might be more valuable in getting the rest of the organisation to adapt and learn.

Dave Snowden always reminds us that in uncertain contexts, we should encourage the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. Single experiments are almost like bets in a casino, while portfolios help us to become more aware of constraints and our ability to influence systems. Challenge your team to come up with a small portfolio of experiments that can be tried to explore or better understand the area of exploration they have chosen. A safe-to-fail experiment is low-risk, meaning that even failure becomes valuable because it tells us about the system. Encourage the team to reflect regularly on the portfolio of experiments, and allow them to allocate resources from those that appear to be giving desirable results while dampening those experiments that appear to be going in the wrong direction. Perhaps you can also try to encourage people from other parts of your organisation to participate or closely follow the process, but do not let the exploration team get too big as this might slow it down or make learning through failure more socially risky. You can always wait a few days and then encourage another team in another area to also identify an area of exploration.

With this effort, you will encourage the practice of reflecting on the performance of the organisation and how different work areas support or enable innovation. Also, you will build the confidence of teams to set their own priorities in improving sub-systems, routines and arrangements, and to then manage their own innovation projects. By encouraging the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments, you are accelerating the distributed learning in the organisation about what is possible and what is harder to do. At the same time, you are raising the awareness in the organisation of how efforts, energy and other patterns are interrelated.

Finally, you will also model that your role is to synthesize the support from other parts of the organisation. Your role is not to be the lead innovator or lead expert, but to be the conductor and chief innovation space creator.

Maybe this is the punch line. When organisations don’t innovate anymore, it is most likely because of too much management. Perhaps your past efforts of creating stability and structures have now become too rigid (or too successful – gasp!)

Instead of taking charge of innovation, encourage your people to explore in a structured way, to learn about what is possible in their areas of work. Your role is to encourage people to set priorities, and then let them learn about what is possible through portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. In organisations that have become very set in its routines and systems, your job would most likely be to make sure the rest of the organisation can adapt where needed. But again, you don’t have to change the rules. Let the admin, finance, HR and operations people assess how the systems and procedures may be making innovation, novelty creation and improvement harder based on the focused innovation efforts of your teams. Rather than protect the systems, protect the innovators. You can manage the risk by ensuring that all experiments are safe-to-fail and low risk.

Go try this and let me know how it goes. Remember, the secret is to not announce this as something new. It is not a new vision. It is not a new strategy. Rather just model this behaviour of focused exploration, encouraging people to take responsibility for areas where they want to see better results. Make sure that all supporting functions are adapting and evaluating their own systems based on the learning from the innovation efforts. Then focus on making sure all the innovation efforts have the resources to implement their ideas, and the encourage innovators and support functions to learn from those efforts that don’t go so well.

You have just kickstarted your innovation culture.

After doing this for a while, any innovation recipe book will give you some tools, tricks and hacks that will work much better once more of your people are able to create, evaluate and learn about their role in your organisation’s innovation culture.

Image by tayphuong388 from Pixabay

Leveraging the novel capabilities of newly acquired technologies

The measures applied to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic have certainly forced many organisations, teams and individuals to use digital technologies in new ways. However, I doubt whether the new ways of using technologies have transformed the way organisations work, or the way that work is organised. Let me explain.

The term “technology” is a combination of two Greek words, techne and logosTechne means art, skill, craft or the way, manner or means by which a thing is gained.  Logos means word, the utterance which expresses inward thought. 

This means that technology is the expression of how we do things. It is the way in which we achieve certain outcomes. We are constantly using many different technologies without giving the process much thought. Language is a technology, the software I am using to type this blog is a technology, and my smartphone is also a technology. These and many other technologies that I use on a daily basis are in many ways interconnected. The coffee machine is one of my favourite technologies. Technologies are not just about physical objects, software and systems. Behaviour, routines and recipes are also technologies. For instance, the way in which a meeting is chaired is a social technology, which in turn is enabled by many other physical and social technologies. The organisations we work in are social technologies, and even the communities we live in are nested structures of physical and social technologies. The technologies that we use and depend on often incorporate many features of our environment.

When we substitute an existing technology with another new technology, we not only replace the “what”, but the new technology also typically allows us to change the “how” and perhaps even the “why” of what we are trying to achieve. For instance, when we replace a physical meeting with a digital meeting application, the digital technology allows us to change the how, the why and the way of conducting the meeting. If we only substitute one part of the “old” technology, we are not fully embracing the capabilities of the new technology. This means that we have not transformed the how or the why, we have merely replaced the what.  If we only replace the what of the technology, there could be an incremental improvement in our efficiency or costs, but we are still limited by the capabilities and functionalities of the older technology.

I received this image via Whatsapp so I do not know who to credit.

I have been thinking about the different levels of taking up the capabilities that new technologies offer us. Here is my first attempt at describing it.

The simplest way of adapting a new technology is to use it for the features that replicate the features we are already familiar with from the old technology. It is basically a substitution. If you use only the functions that you associate with the old technology, you are still largely constrained by the limitations of the previous technology.

Adoption means that you have to change how you use the new technology, such as by making changes in other related technologies. Perhaps some functions of the newer technology are much easier now, and may perhaps even make certain procedures and processes redundant. Adoption implies that you have to change some arrangements and behaviours, and some of the logic of how you use the technology. 

When you adapt a new technology, you may even have to tweak the new technology itself to fit into your context or to work with the other technologies you have chosen. To adapt a technology requires some level of mastery, either of the technology itself or of the other supplementary technologies that you are using. Geeks often overcome the limitations of a new technology by combining it with other (incomplete) solutions. 

The highest form of leveraging new technology is to integrate the new technology into how you do things, and then re-organise and adjust the technologies around the new capabilities. There are two simultaneous movements here. You adapt the technology and at the same time you reorganise, or remodel, your process and organisations around this new capability. As you remodel why, how and what you are doing around this new capability, you are able to adjust, tweak, modify or even discontinue other technologies. In real life this often happens in an iterative process of mastering a new technology. As you discover new possibilities to improve the arrangements, you reorganise yourself around newly recognised capabilities to take advantage of them. This is when we leverage the functionality of new technologies, and in many cases the newer technologies could even make some complementary older technologies work better. 

Then there is the concept of exaptation, which is like co-opting something for a purpose for which it was never intended, like off-label use of a medication. An example of exaptation is where equipment developed to scan for fine cracks in aircraft wings has been modified and re-engineered for scanning for tumours.

One of my favourite quotes by Bill Gates is: 

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Bill Gates

I think Mr Gates will forgive me for substituting the word “automation” with “digital”. Digital technologies will amplify poorly designed, undermanaged and inadequately thought-through processes. These technologies will reveal our inability to think through, consider and respond to the capabilities offered by newer technologies and the remodelling that they require. That is why it is not so easy to take a process that works in the physical world and just replicate it online. Amazon is far more than a bookstore with a webpage. If you want to use the new capabilities offered by the network of digital technologies to their fullest extent, you have to re-think your complete business, your relations with suppliers, clients, banks and more. 

To really harness newer digital technologies demands that we reconsider and think through the underlying and complementary processes, systems and arrangements. These are all enabling technologies. But we must also think of the constraints, side-effects and downsides of the existing technologies we are replacing. Key questions to ask are:

  • Can we break with some of the dependencies that we no longer need? 
  • By overcoming some of the constraints of our legacy arrangements and capabilities, where can we innovate in the how, the why and the what we do?
  • How can we manage some of the new limitations or challenges of using a newer technology? How do we overcome the hesitation of users to change how they engage with us?
  • Which inherited arrangements, legacies, rules, habits and routines no longer serve us to reach out goals?
  • What does fully using the new capabilities demand from us in terms of product, process, system and business model innovation and change?

It is not always necessary to think through all the implications of adopting and harnessing a new technology beforehand. We usually select a new technology based on explicit features that we believe are beneficial to or more effective than current technologies. We often discover new capabilities as we use a new technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this decision for many of us. At other times, shifts by clients, competitors or government regulations force us to confront new technologies. As we learn how to use a new technology, we discover potential adaptations, tweaks and new arrangements. The problem is that this can sometimes take a very long time. In order not to fall behind, or be seen as incompetent or ignorant, we have to purposefully explore these new capabilities if we wish to be faster than our competitors and increasingly, our digitally conversant clients, suppliers, competitors, regulators and, dare I say, children?

In conclusion, if you have merely replaced a physical meeting with a digital meeting, or a physical document with a digital document, you have not yet transformed. You have just substituted one way of doing things for another, and you will most likely revert to the old way when conditions allow. If you have simply substituted one way for the other, you will still be held back by the constraints of the older technology. 

When you harness the capabilities that come with adopted new technologies and then change the “what” and even the “why” of how you are doing things, then you have transformed. In most cases this requires us to let go of some of our ways of organising ourselves around earlier capabilities.

Now is the time to think about what is next after what is next

Updated and improved on 18 April 2020, Originally published, March 19 2020

I have found the past month a bit surreal, to say the least. When I travelled through an international airport at the end of January I saw paramedics treating a person who had collapsed. The paramedics were not wearing masks and gloves, while a gaping growing crowd gathered to watch, despite the fact that they already knew about the Covid-19 virus. That was the moment when I realised that I would have to suspend my travels for a while.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received many calls and emails from business and government leaders asking me to help them to think through their options. Some even asked for scenarios. First, let me explain why just jumping straight to scenarios is not a good idea right now with all the contradictory information we are being inundated with.

With all the uncertainty and confusion right now, public and business leaders need some vision of the future to work towards. Hence the image of this blog is a meerkat looking away from whatever the others are occupying themselves with. But different leaders have slightly different motivations. While some people require very little information to make decisions, others need lots of evidence and data. The first group are most likely the innovators and creators of new markets and business models, while the second group may be those that are more focused on incrementally improving what already exists or what is in place. I will refer to the first group as the innovators and the second group as the system optimisers.

We need both innovators and system optimisers to create the future, but they are driven by different motivations and often take different paths if you do not get them to explore a shared mental map. The first group, the innovators, needs a problem to explore and space to try new things, while the system optimisers need a target to reach and sufficient authority over resources to get there. The system builders will look at the facts and data and will think you are crazy if you want to talk about a post-crisis positioning strategy. The innovators will go nuts if you ask them to improve the system when they feel that the way the world works is being questioned. You need these groups to work together – one shared picture, and different yet complementary skills.

So if I had to help your team think about the options right now, a first step would be to think of what could possibly happen next. Yes, it is that simple. Maybe it takes only a few minutes. But this gives us some possible trajectories, and we can explore the ups and downs of each. At least we then have some options to choose from.

I agree that looking at the immediate options is not enough. That is too short term. So we have to ask a second round of “what’s next?” questions and try to explore the decision branches from the previously identified possibilities. Now the innovators can start thinking about new arrangements, new connections, new formulations of what already exists. The system builders will most likely already be a little frustrated with all the hypothetical talk, so they need to be enabled to start thinking of what must be decided or put in place to go down certain paths while avoiding others.

I know this is very simplistic, but my experience right now is that it is very hard to ask people to think six months or three years in advance. But for us to shape what is coming, we have to get more leaders thinking about what is emerging and what is emerging after what is next. This is hard to type, but it is even harder to ponder.

I know that some of my mentors, like Dave Snowden, will baulk at me even proposing a two-by-two matrix as the basis for a scenario exercise, so I hope he will not see this post. Using a simple matrix is a straightforward way to get people to think of alternatives that they struggle to consider if you don’t take them on a structured thinking journey.

Here is a simple scenario matrix that I have been using this week to guide some of my clients. They are all facing a lot of uncertainty about how to make decisions in the next few weeks.

On the Y-axis at the top is “Change initiated by us”, and at the bottom is “Change initiated by others” (Yes, I know that looks as though it is the past tense, but just humour me). On the X-axis on the left is “Past orientation, focused on evidence and recent data” and on the right “Future orientation, focused on what is possible next … and next”.

Yes, again the immediate focus. My sense right now is to think shorter term just for a few days. Just get your team to start building a shared mental map. Then you can push further into the future.

Let us now think through these quadrants. Simply combine the statement on the Y-axis with the statement on the X-axis. You can start in any of the quadrants. I find it easier to start on the left in the past, combined with changes initiated by others. This is what we have to respond to.

Here is a write-up of a telephone conversation I had with a client today. It was surprisingly similar to a conversation I had yesterday with another client in the Not-for-Profit sector. You can skip this if you want to.

We started at the bottom left (which made sense to me because he felt that his hand was being forced, even though he understood that based on the evidence the government was probably making the right decisions). We spoke about the self-isolation of his team, the rapidly worsening statistics, and what it would mean for his organisation if the government (and others he depends on) made the obvious decisions. We explored which data was reliable and valuable enough to track.  Next, we moved to the top-left quadrant. Based on the data and evidence, what decisions should he be making? He immediately realised there were some pretty obvious decisions that he simply had to announce. We also reflected on what he had already done and explored how he knew that he had made the right decisions. 

Then we moved to the bottom right quadrant. We started to consider what changes might be made by others next. And next. He realised that we might move to complete quarantine if the government felt it was necessary. He realised that he would be forced to close large parts of his business, so he could explore with his team what they would need to keep some operations viable. He realised that if his suppliers closed, he would be in trouble, so he had to remain in close contact with them to know what their plans were for the next few days.

In the top-right quadrant, he realised that he had to consider a “dry run” to practice with his team to work together even when they were not together. Some other ideas were also explored. At this point, he could take it further. He had enough ideas to work with. I still wanted to explore the “what next” after the “ what next”, but he said we could talk about that the next day.

These are some notes of a long conversation that I had with a client. At the end of the conversation he could already sense that he could move from being responsive to being pro-active, and how he could involve his team in this exploration.

Please let me know how you are working with your team to build and maintain a shared mental map of your situation and your options. Do not be shy, use the comments block below!

Thanks to Harald Jarche, who is always reminding his readers rather to share half-baked ideas than to try and perfect them. All the errors are my fault, not his.

How to use remote team collaboration

This is a grammar edited and improved version of an earlier post.

I am supporting teams that are using Slack, MS Teams or other remote collaboration applications. Some of my clients also use Viber or WhatsApp.

In our company, Mesopartner, we’ve been using Slack for a few years. It’s not my purpose here to review these different applications, but rather to share some insights on how we and some of our clients have configured channels for conversations.

I like to look at remote collaboration tools not only as communication and coordination tools but as an essential element of strengthening knowledge development and as a learning environment. 

Wherever I am supporting teams to improve their shared sense-making and innovation cultures, I ask them to create the following channels:

#Reading and listening – here people can share what they are reading and listening to.

#Working out loud – here people can check in and explain to the rest of the team what is currently foremost on their mind. The intent is not only to inform others, but also to help the person making the post to increase their own coherence or narrative of what they are devoting their attention to and why.

Now, with the COVID-19 virus, more and more people are working from home. In our own company, we have created a channel called #Coping-with-Corona where we can all share our experiences of being in different stages of self-isolation.

We have also created groups of channels. For instance, we have a group of channels where the names all start with “support” followed by the topic. So in our “#support_mac” channel we help each other with tips, problem solving and advice, while in the “#support_blogging” channel we encourage and assist each other with blogging. 

We have groups of channels for projects and important topics, and to coordinate our internal company functions such as publications, etc.

Sometimes team leaders struggle to understand the value and function of the informal banter that often takes place in the different channels. This informal exchange is important because it makes it possible for teams to weave together explicit knowledge from the misformed or semi-thought-through statements, the half-baked ideas, the intuitions and the sarcasm that give expression to tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is often hard to express. Furthermore, tacit knowledge is often revealed when doubts or confidence are expressed, like when somebody replies “I am just not so sure about your approach”, or “Yes, you should try that, in my experience that always works”. Tacit knowledge often develops iteratively during many conversations.

The real challenge with encouraging people to share their tacit insight is that we all prefer to share our feelings and insight only with people whom we trust, or people whom we believe will be able to use our ideas. That is why reducing the chatter to only factual and precise formulations is not helpful. Often individuals will share their advice when they feel that others have shown in the past that the shared ideas are useful.

A final point. These remote collaboration tools are so useful because we can create channels when we need them, or we can close or archive them when they have served their purpose. Rather make more channels, and tolerate some cross-posting, than to have a few channels that are so busy that people fall behind in a day or two. Encourage your team members to reduce internal emails and to use the remote collaboration tools and you will immediately see an improved culture of sharing, deliberation and joint sense making.

Supporting your team from a distance during self or imposed isolation

This is a grammar edited and improved version of an earlier post.

I have been receiving many messages from clients and friends asking for advice on how to work from home. I have organised the requests into three groups.

The first group has been asking me how I manage my time.

What works for me is to organise my day into half- or quarter-day blocks of time during which I focus intensively on one topic. I try to schedule the more conceptual or tougher mental tasks for the mornings, and phone calls, Skype calls and admin for the afternoons. Also, I found that dressing for work helps me to stay focused. I don’t necessarily dress as formally as I would when attending a meeting, but I generally try not to look like I am going to spend the day on the beach.

The second group has been asking me how they can keep their teams connected while everyone is working from home.

This is a little harder. If your team is doing knowledge work, then I would check with them what kind of information and knowledge exchange they need to do their work. Don’t just have web meetings to stay in touch (although there is a need to remain socially connected), use meetings and platforms such as Slack or MS Teams to exchange views and ideas on what really matters. I have seen some of my clients doing daily check-ins and half-daily updates of what everyone is doing. I don’t really think this helps unless everybody’s tasks are clearly defined. Most people, even when they are at work, are overwhelmed by all the information streams that appear to be important, although this does actually help people to make better decisions or do their jobs better.

During this time when people are working from home it will also become apparent which team members are truly independent and able to build their area of work without your direct supervision. Some of your team members will love this, and will find the “freedom” to work at their own pace exhilarating. However, some people will also feel insecure, and they may even feel distressed and need more direction from you. But please, whatever you do, do not treat everybody the same. Give those who can self-direct their work the space and the freedom, while spending more time with those that need direction. 

Lastly, it is not possible to remotely keep all your people working productively. There are all kinds of distractions at home: kids, pets, snacking and other comforts. It takes a lot of discipline to work from home, I know! Some people will simply not perform as expected. I suggest you focus on the key team members who are critical to keep your organisation going and try to support them as best as you can. Give those doing operational or administrative tasks clear instructions. But don’t expect everybody to perform.

The third group of clients having been asking me how they can use this abnormal situation to re-think areas of their business from a strategy and innovation perspective

Most of our thinking is shaped by recency bias. We tend to think of the issues that dominated our conversations and attracted our attention in the last week or two. This bias makes it hard for us to reflect on what we are not paying sufficient attention to, or what else may be happening but which we may be filtering out. 

Right now, everyone is talking about COVID-19. A few weeks ago everyone in South Africa was talking about the pending rating agency downgrade and the state of our economy and the poor state of our state-owned companies. I guess that in your workplace these topics are also taking up mental bandwidth, like the financial year-end and many others.

I suggest that you use this time away from the watercooler and the coffee machine to think beyond the dominant and recent topics that almost magnetically drew your attention. What are those issues that often do not get enough mental bandwidth? Some suggestions are the following:

  • What have you postponed thinking about simply because it feels like a lot of effort to do while there is so much else that requires your attention?
  • How innovative is your culture in your organisation really? Is this culture widespread or dependent on just a few individuals who are willing to try new ideas and make fools of themselves?
  • How strong is your team and organisation at making sense not only of what is happening, but what is emerging?
  • How much time are you spending imagining how things could be in the future and then finding ways to go and fetch those stuck in the present or the past?

Let me know what you are trying, and what seems to be working for you and your team. Your comments and suggestions are useful to all my other clients and friends who are reading this blog.

Don’t waste time holding out for “normal” to return

Like you, I am spending hours each day in video calls with clients, friends, family and people I am trying to encourage during the COVID19 lockdown.

Have often do you hear people say “in two weeks this will be over?” or, “I think I am coping well under the circumstances?”.

How often do you hear people exclaim “when things get back to normal then…”?

In my mind, I cannot imagine us going back to normal.

In our country, too many poor people and small enterprises would have been affected by the pandemic. Even if no virus comes anywhere near them, their worlds have changed. Savings may be depleted. Suppliers and clients may not re-open. Governments resources to support the economy may be greatly reduced. All of this will not be undone on the day or the weeks after the lockdown ends.

Yes, I know that some things may also change for the better. Maybe some new entrepreneurs will grow the confidence to start their ventures. Hopefully, the inadequate infrastructure and the lack of basic services in large parts of our country will not be forgotten in the next planning cycles. I believe many new champions in essential services and goods will be tempered during this time. I understand that not everybody will be affected to the same extent.

I know this all sounds very gloomy. My question is, why settle your hope on getting back to normal?

What is normal anyway?

Do we really want to go back there? A few months ago, we were all complaining about how terrible the “normal” was. Just think back to the headlines about Brexit or the local politics. Just think back to how busy you were, of the things that bothered you. I can recall conversations with many of my clients about how they never have time to read or think, or how disempowered their staff were.

I urge you to set a higher standard than “the normal”. I beg you to use this time to purposefully design and build the kind of enterprise and innovation culture that you and your team desire. Start forming the new habits, routines and patterns right now.

When you plan, don’t (only) plan for the days after the lockdown ends. You have to think about how the world has changed. Carefully consider the state of the people that you depend on, in your organisations, your suppliers and your clients. Think of fundamental shifts that you have to respond to, but also ponder the things that you can influence or change. While imagining the new normal you want to shape, be mindful of the physical and emotional states of the people that you have to work with. It may take some extra effort to encourage and lift up the people around you.

Above all, you cannot now afford to only think in the short term. You cannot only think of your local context. During this COVID19 pandemic, we could hear and see daily reports of how our countries are interdependent. Our own socio-economic well-being is tied to what is going on in the rest of Africa and the world.

Lastly, don’t be selfish. Think of your organisation’s role in the communities all your people interact with, of the society and the environment you are part of. Make sure, that as far as possible, your organisation is unleashed to make this space that you work in better.

Much of innovation is mundane

I love facilitating thinking and reflection session with teams. However, there is one kind of request that I often decline, and that is a request to facilitate an annual innovation strategy rethink. I get many such requests towards the end of the year as organisations start thinking of the coming year and their “agenda” for innovation.

I don’t believe that it is possible to have a meaningful strategy meeting of minds that lasts one or two days, while the rest of the year everyone is busy scurrying about in their own trenches chasing deadlines, feeling squeezed and under pressure. You cannot make up for all the miscommunication, lack of communication and poorly moderated meetings just by calling everyone together for a day or two. Innovation is what happens on normal days, not in an extraordinary workshop.

I understand that people want creative innovation meetings and workshops. I love facilitating those. They feel their team deserve something that is fun, creative and mind blowing. That’s how more meetings should be in any case. Yet in my experience, a large part of innovation is rather mundane. In great organisations mundane innovations are carried out daily by people who are equipped and encouraged to reflect, dig deeper, re-think and make adjustments to issues that they feel matter in their work, even if their improvements or changes do not lead to new products, revenue streams or new markets.

I can think of at least two variations of mundane innovations.

The first variation consists of innovations in areas that appear to be mundane. These innovations are small changes in areas where we are so used to cumbersome processes or sub-optimal arrangements that we no longer even notice them. Important improvements can be made simply by tackling mind-numbingly dull areas in administration, bureaucracy, documentation or client interfaces. Finding ways to make backroom operations work better in support of frontline staff can free resources and mental bandwidth. Figuring out how something can be redesigned or reconceptualised with the benefit of hindsight can improve things going forward, even this cannot be quantified directly in profits or savings.

The second variation relates to innovations where the process itself feels mundane. This is where people have to sweat the details and stick with it until the task is done. Measure, adapt, retry, go back to the start. Repeat. Or spend time arguing or fleshing out two or three possible alternatives to enable better decision making, even if it feels like there are no real alternatives.

How leadership deals with the mundane everyday tasks of innovation is ultimately what makes one organisation healthier than another. Allocating resources to address the boring details outsiders don’t even see is often what makes organisations resilient and able to continuously adapt. It is the ability to set aside time, space and resources to enable people to dive deep into details, problems or ideas. In organisations that are able to continuously pay attention to the details it is much easier for more ambitious product, process or business model innovations to be implemented, as people throughout the organisation understand the discipline and process of innovation because they are encouraged to innovate often.

How are those seemingly mundane innovations enabled or encouraged?

  • Management must make some tools available, such as whiteboards, flipcharts, good coffee and snacks, spreadsheets and marker pens. Perhaps software and a facilitator could also be provided.
  • Management must create space. It may even be necessary to hold meetings without agendas and chairpersons, do explorations without reports or experiments without written documentation, or maybe a period with no electronic communications could be created so that people can dive deep into topics without having to manage or be managed. I cannot facilitate problem solving, sense making or innovation meetings in a boardroom consisting of a table and four walls. Perhaps spaces with glass walls, comfortable chairs and furniture that can be re-arranged would be more suitable.
  • Management must acknowledge, encourage and celebrate small improvements. If the intent of the organisational unit is clear, and the relationship to other functions in the organisation is understood, then people will be able to figure out where to optimise, where to re-think and where to let go. People should be encouraged to work together in small groups on topics, issues, opportunities or problems that draw their attention or that seem important in their context. Opportunities for organisations to make small changes behind the scenes are like antibodies attacking an invader in an organism.

Much of innovation seems mundane because we so often associate innovation with breakthrough products, smoothly integrated systems and creative teams that seem to require no management or direction. But all of these are made possible by allowing people to get on with attending to the details, to sink their teeth into things that matter, which might appear senseless to management.