What Turkish steps and an Iranian wrestler can teach us about learning during and learning after.

Its 00.15 on Monday morning and Turkish Airlines flight TK0898 from Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International Airport has arrived on stand 20 minutes late in swirling snow at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. To be fair the journey which started at London Gatwick at 11.55 on Sunday has been very good but with a busy day ahead, and a 60 Turkish Air Stepsminute drive to Hotel Niloo, the chances of being in bed much before 2am are receeding.  Then events take a turn for the worse!

The steps to dissembark have a fault and it will be a further 20 minutes before an alternative is delivered to offload a plane load of very grumpy passengers many of whom are Europeans on the first visit to Iran.

Fortunately I am at the front of the plane so able to converse with the Cabin Cheif.  She is looking at the manual of useful information to give passengers during the flight and there is no entry to cover this situation. So she declines to make a comment while passengers fulminate. It could have all been so different!

I am a great fan of checklists believing them to be knowledge enabled documents which should be, if they are regularly updated, the best practices of an organisation. And as I was to suggest during my client visit the best way to bring about a change in checklists often starts with an After Action Review (AAR) or a Learning Review.

I know organisations where after an event (like the end of a flight) the team would have held a quick debrief using the AAR template:

  • What was supposed to happen;
  • What did happen;
  • Why was there a difference:
  • What can we learn from this;
  • What can we do better next time;
  • What actions should we take; and
  • Can we celebrate success?

The AAR session would have surfaced all the issues about the lack of communication and (maybe) occasioned a change in operating procedures and their checklist – encouraging the cabin staff to keep people updated when things go wrong!

This is where the true value of tools such as AAR come in, they are precursors to a change in procedures or checklists. Many organisations’ Knowledge Management (KM) activity culmiates in the share and reuse step. I have come to realise while working alongside Ron Young and Knowledge Associates that the true value of KM comes from the step of Harvesting which involves turning what has been collected into learning’s and proposed process improvements which the process owner and subject matter experts review and accept or reject.  Checklists then get updated (or not) at that point and the organisation learns from doing!

Lessons Learned when ‘my knowledge is my soul’

For the Harvesting step to work effectively though there has to be an environment that recognises and values the process of capturing and building on learning’s from such tools as AAR. Too often this process throws up dozens of action points few of which get actioned. If you can’t count the actions on the fingers of one hand its unlikely anything will happen as a result.

A few years ago in Khartoum I was to discover that knowledge has a more spiritual feel/meaning in the Arabic and Farsi speaking world. ‘My knowledge is my soul’ is a good indicator of how personal knowledge is viewed and this (taken from a corporate Code of Ethics booklet) reinforces the view that a purely Western approach to the use of tools such as After Action Reviews, Lessons Learned Workshops and Pause & Reflect sessions will not work:

We believe the ethical confrontation with failures should be through awareness, consultation giving the subordinates the opportunity to rectify and compensate for mistakes and applicaton of regulations fairly,,,

So what will? Perhaps this gives an insight.

The Wrestler’s story

During my recent trip to Iran I was taken to the landmark Milad Tower. Around the viewing gallery are a collection of silicon ‘wax’ works of some of Iran’s most famous and loved figures.  There are many poets, writers, a few politicians and one sportsman:

Iran Wrestler

Gholamreza Takhti

Gholamreza Takhti is one of the most, if not the most, loved sportsman in Iran. Here’s why: Takhti tended to act fairly when competing against rivals during his career, something which originated from traditional values of Zurkhaneh, a kind of heroic behaviour that epitomizes chivalrous qualities known as Javanmardi.

For instance, once he had a match with Russian wrestler Alexander Medved who had an injured right knee. When Takhti found out that Medved was injured, he avoided touching the injured leg and tried to attack the other leg instead. He lost the match, but showed that he valued honorable behavior more than reaching victory.

This act of chivalry and exceptional sportsmanship is seen as the desired way to behave and permeates a lot of business dealings.

And finally

Effective Knowledge Management relies on effective Personal Knowledge Management.  Appealing to the corporate good and the team ethic is not going to win supporters or make people feel individually empowered.

Addressing the  ‘What’s in it for me?’ question is vital: this is not purely about money but also recognition, self esteem and personal development.  It’s one reason why many senior corporate positions are filled by academics and people value certification as a way of demonstrating knowledge and expertise.

On the downside it can breed a culture of learning but not necessarily doing: ‘if I am to be punished for making a mistake then why would I try to do it in the first place and I certainly won’t acknowledge it afterwards.’

While we in the West think its quite natural to have an open and frank dialogue about what we could do better next time, its not always the case elsewhere. Our challenge is to find a way to surface learning’s and build them back into process while recognising its counter culture in a personal risk averse environment.

Future of Legal KIM: ‘Death of Difference’ and the need for effective legal project management

A really timely thought piece ‘Becoming the law firm clients really want’ landed on my desk this week. The future of LawBy Peppermint Technology Research, it characterised the future of law firms as being ‘the death of difference’ noting that legal will become much like other sectors. This scenario has profound implications for lawyers, professional support lawyers and legal knowledge & information management (KIM) professionals.

On December 9th Martin White and I will be hosting a breakfast breakout event at the RSA The future for Legal KIM: An Outside-In perspective.  In it we will look at some of the issues facing KIM professionals. Martin and I have worked in many industries across many countries; we’ve seen and been involved in seismic shifts in the KIM roles in engineering, energy, the 3rd sector, publishing, software and finance. Our thinking in putting this event together was to share some of our experiences in a relaxed setting with like minded legal KM’ers.

So over the past few weeks in the run up to the event we have been looking at the four big issues research had told us were near the top of the legal professions ‘must do’ list.

  • Lawyers come and go – capturing knowledge at speed
  • Getting the best from virtual teams
  • Collaboration and KM beyond the firewall
  • Bringing it all together – legal project management

I began with Going but not forgotten: knowledge capture in a hurry, Martin then wrote  The opportunities for digital workplace adoption by law firms and  Certifying virtual teams – a key skill in digital workplace implementation.

bringing it all together – legal project management

Today I am going to focus (from a KIM perspective) on the challenges of setting up a project management infrastructure that allows an organisation to learn from previous experiences and feed back learnings from the project back into the business.

There are many project management disciplines being used in industry. The Stage-Gate new product development (NPD) methodology is one example in which the veracity of new products are assessed and resources allocated according to a set of criteria for each stage of the process. Knowledge capture is built into the process.

Irrespective of the system you adopt below are a few of the questions you will need to be asking (I’ve omitted the obvious budget ones):

set up (learning before)

  • What do we know about this subject and what has been done before?
  • Who is an expert (internal and external) and can we get their input before starting the project?
  • Who should we invite to the Kick Off meeting and how do we want to structure that?
  • What structures are we going to use for management, monitoring and decision making?
  • Who is going to be on the Project Steering Group and how do we manage those stakeholders and others? How often should they meet and in what format?
  • How are we going to capture the outcomes of meetings, store the material we generate and make people aware of what’s happening?
  • How do we collaborate across teams and boundaries to ensure the best possible decisions are made based on the best?

conduct (learning during)

  • Who do we go to for answers to tricky questions that arise and how do we do that?
  • How often are we feeding learnings back into our project?
  • Who is providing updates and in what format?
  • Where are we storing progress reports?

conclusions (learning after)

  • What format will the debrief take and who will be invited?
  • When and where will you hold it?
  • Who will be tasked to action the outcomes?

I remember a conversation once with Professor Victor Newman on his Baton Passing Technique which arose in part to ensure project knowledge is passed on.  He said:

The big problem in managing learning to have an impact is to know what knowledge is useful, to whom, the form it should take, where and when it is best applied and when best to share it

Baton PassingAlongside is an extract from the slides Victor and the British Council made available.  It works, I’ve tried it!

I have used in addition: After Action Reviews, Pause & Reflects, Retrospects to name but three.

 

 

Earlier this year APQC published an interview with me in which I described the concept of DEBRIEF as a technique for capturing learnings at the end of various stages of projects. I will talk more about that on the 9th.  It’s not too late to sign up here!

and finally

Too often the KIM team are excluded from the project management processes in favour of an accredited (Prince 2 trained) Project Manager. In my view that’s a grave mistake, there are KM techniques for each step of the process and the good KIM’er will be well versed in facilitating such interventions.

If you fail to learn from what you’ve done then you will not improve as a business and will be uncompetitive with those who do.

 

 

 

Tips for working on international assignments (part I)

Thanks Frank (Gardner)

It was he who encouraged me to blog about my experiences and I have always wanted to be able to share some of the techniques I’ve come to adopt when undertaking international assignments. The offer by Sandra Ward and Val Skelton, Co-Editors of Business Information Review, to write an article for the forthcoming edition was too good to miss and so today I submitted that piece.

Here are just a few snippets from my submission (the pictures won’t be appearing):

Abstract

In today’s global village the ability to work cross border and cross culture is increasingly important. This article looks at the lifecycle of an assignment from winning and negotiating to working and collaborating concluding with reporting and getting paid. It examines what it takes to run successful international assignments while identifying a number of potential pitfalls to be avoided and issues to be considered.

Baggage trolley at El Fashar Airport DarfurI am lucky; I’ve worked across five continents and experienced many different cultures over the last 40 years. I’ve been shot at in Ireland, detained in Sudan, been part of an aid convoy in the Philippines after Typhoon Ondoy, slept in a tin shack in Darfur, shared a room with a desert rat while watching oil fields burning in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Desert Storm and landed in Barbados after the island’s only hurricane.

When I reflect on a few snippets from a lifetime of conducting international assignments it’s perhaps unsurprising that my daughter frequently asks the question at the top of this piece.

Winning the business

We’ve all had ‘we’d like to invite you to tender for’ requests from organizations we’ve never met. As you become more visible and published so these increase. As a rule unless you can trace a direct link to someone you know or somewhere you’ve been then you are being used as padding for a tender process. Be warned. It takes a considerable effort to respond to tender requests especially when there are procurement specialists intermediating….

Negotiating the ‘deal’

….An African friend of mine signed up for a consulting engagement with one of Africa’s major organizations. It looked great and met all of the criteria outlined above. Payment was triggered by receipt and acceptance of a set of reports and recommendations. Now 9 months later he is still waiting for formal approval for his reports. His mistake? He had no milestone payment and no upfront mobilization fee. Next time he might insist on a payment for delivery with balance on acceptance.

Travelling and staying

… Before I decide on whether to go or not to a country I check out what and whom I know who might help – I conduct my own ‘Peer Assist’ – and visit the members’ library at Chatham House.

…Accommodation can make or break an assignment! A client will often give you an allowance or have preferential rates. Expensive doesn’t always mean good; proximity to your client is vital as is the ability to work in your room. For Darfur Victoria Ward and I had to undergo UN security training. It taught me a number of things I use today when asking for a room:

  • Above tree line and below floor 7
  • Preferably not facing the street
  • Proximity to fire stairs.

Working & communicating

The Culture Map which notes that human speech varies depending on whether there is a “high” or “low” level of assumed shared cultural context. This affects vocabularies: the English use more words whereas North Europeans (and Americans) tend to be more forthright.

Why is this relevant? If you don’t adapt your style and (in my case) speak slower, write more succinctly and with less jargon, there is huge potential for miscommunication….

Importance of set up

If the way we speak, write and hold ourselves is important so are the technological underpinnings. Consider this: in many organizations the jump drive (memory stick) is banned. There is a limit on email size (try sending a video to a client), browser activity is monitored and restricted and guest access behind their firewall requires countless sign off and takes days!….

Listening ears and noticing eyes

How you are received on arrival is usually a good indicator of how important your visit is…

…I also find it pays to listen more than talk especially in the early parts of an assignment, as someone once said ‘you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’…

Friendly ‘fire’

Assuming you are by now super observant and minding your P’s & Q’s, the next big challenge facing you is how to work with your immediate stakeholder group. You need to establish separate sounding boards not just your project sponsor…

Handling left field moments

Even the best of us can inadvertently put a metaphorical foot wrong. Our actions are magnified when we are dealing in a different environment and out of our comfort zones….

…Perhaps my most surreal experience occurred in Sudan when I was invited to visit a major company for a discussion only to find on arrival there were 200 people assembled to hear my presentation on ‘Knowledge Management in the Energy Industry’. After recovering from the shock I conducted a 45-minute Q&A session prompted by an opening, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’

Reporting and getting paid

I’ve had mainly positive experiences dealing with international clients and getting paid. Typically the more ‘developed’ the country the worse organizations (especially governments) are at making payment if you are an SME.

However I’ve found people will try and find a way to pay you if they feel you’ve done a good job. Your challenge is to manage that perception!…..

Ten tips

If I were advising someone about to undertake their first international assignment what would I tell them?

  • No credit cards in SudanClarity is key, ambiguity is the enemy of progress: be clear about the terms, what they are going to get, when and in what format and what help and assistance you need from them in order to deliver it.
  • Prepare for the unexpected: plan for disasters and have a backup (if you are on medication take that in your briefcase); save your work to the cloud (securely of course). Adopt my 50/50/50 rule and always have that amount of £, € and $ in your wallet.
  • Keep detailed field notes and conduct regular After Action Reviews or Pause & Reflect sessions as a team: It’s vital to be able to reflect on what you’ve heard and to have the ability to play that back in regular progress reports.

I will share the rest of the article and the remaining seven tips over the coming months.

10 tips for running a successful Pause & Reflect debrief

David Gurteen rang me just before Christmas.  He’d read my recent blog post about the  Pause & Reflect (P&R) debrief session I was running for the Brighton Food Waste Colllective and wanted to understand how it differed from an After Action Review (AAR).

Here’s what I told him and via this link his observations on the technique:

In a P&R debrief the team (with the help of the Facilitator) is attempting to go beyond the questions posed by an AAR: what was supposed to happen; what did actually happen; what went well; and what might we do differently next time?

While these are valid areas of investigation they tend not to address the how or why an event succeeded or failed and overlook aspects of behaviour, space and culture.

P&R sessions look at all of these through the use of timelines and objects by recreating what happened formally and informally, before the event, during the event and after the event.

The technique I like to use is an A3 version of the Narrative Grid about which I’ve written before.

By way of an example (and with the kind permission of Vera, Mei-Weh and Saskia) I’d like to draw on the recent P&R session in Brighton.

Food Waste Collective Pause & Reflect:

We met informally at a quirky venue (Blue Man Bar) in Brighton. Despite background noise the team were able to raise and openly discuss the event. Here’s what I asked them to think about in advance:

The aim is to identify learning’s from the recent Food Collective Event that you might apply to current and future events. This session is best done with a timeline /narrative grid and I will ask these questions for each stage (Before/During/After):

*     What was expected to happen?

*     What actually occurred?

*     What went well and why?

*     What can be improved and how? And finally,

*     What behaviours in others did you most admire / find most useful?

I will take notes so you just need to bring along your keen minds, memories, observations and most importantly a photo or object from the event.

some key outcomes:

The session designed primarily as a capacity building/knowledge transfer session lasted but an hour.  In that time a couple of key outcomes emerged and each of the team was able to highlight behaviours in others that made a real difference.  It underpinned my belief that by being appreciative in the approach to debriefs and focusing on events a lot more emerges.

Here’s an extract from the notes I took:

P&R Outcomes Dec13

when, where and how to use a Pause & Reflect?

Here are 10 suggestions on how to make it work:

  1. use it to conduct a debrief on an event or decision that has taken place in the last month
  2. use pictures and objects from the event or decision to amplify key moments and trigger memories – brief them about the need to bring something along
  3. get people to fill in the narrative grid / timeline as they go and if you have different cultures involved ask different groups to fill in their own timelines – in the process of comparing you will discover much
  4. probe by asking for examples – in the above case the need to get volunteers on a Thursday to help unload FareShare vans emerged only by going through the event step by step
  5. when someone makes a comment such as ‘it was so organised when I arrived’ get them to elaborate and contrast – it will generate a story that becomes an important narrative of the event
  6. make the session informal (and reflective of the organisational culture) but do have an agenda and stick to it – be clear about the roles each one is playing at the P&R
  7. get participants to talk about the environment and location where the event or decision you are holding a P&R about took place
  8. don’t be afraid to let the silence hang in sticky moments – behaviours (most admired which might have made an event successful) often emerge slowly
  9. ensure (with permissions) that you take photos of the P&R and include them in the write up
  10. finally, don’t be too ambitious: 3 hours is the maximum I’ve found works and look at 1 event or decision not a whole project.

 

 

‘Pause & Reflect’ session vs. an ‘After Action Review’

Pause & Reflect AgendaTonight (Thursday) I will be in Brighton on behalf of Plan Zheroes running a Pause & Reflect session with the Food Waste Collective. We are going to be taking a look at the recent event they held at Brighton University and which I wrote about a few weeks back – when a good deed is lentil shaped: why a group of Brighton based women deserve our support.

Since a previous posting about a Plan Zheroes Pause & Reflect session on a CSR Day we ran attracted some interest I decided to share with a wider audience how I go about setting them up

The agenda is time specific and requires the attendees to have thought in advance about an object or image that sums up the event for them. The other departure from the more traditional After Action Review process is that I try to get people to focus on the behaviours in others that really helped make the event work.  This appreciative inquiry technique is one I’ve found to be highly effective reflecting as it does on behaviours in a group environment.

the power of 3

I’ve always been a great believer in the principle that less is more especially when looking back at an event or decision. And I tried to get everyone I’ve mentored or coached to focus on ‘the power of 3’. Most people can remember 3 things and act on them.

Professor Victor Newman often tells a story about one of his early experiences going into an organisation and finding a lessons learned exercise came up with more than 200 ‘lessons’ which were noted down and taken away never to be acted upon.

3 ‘things’ is also a theme I apply in reverse brainstorming when getting people to consider how they can tackle ‘stuff’ that is broken.

capacity building and knowledge transfer

Tonight’s event is part of Plan Zheroes ongoing commitment to support volunteers outside of its core market. If we can equip others with basic skills and tools to improve the way they run events and interact with food donors and recipients fewer people will be facing food poverty and we will all be making better use of surplus food.

I am looking forward to the session.