KMers navigating between fast flow and slow space


On 12 April (2011), I finally facilitated the KMers’ chat about balancing quick sharing of information and reflection in a slow space – a paradox that most knowledge workers have to come to terms with at some point, usually repeatedly. This blog post set the scene for the discussion.

It was not a straightforward chat because at first sight the discussion topic is not a typical or indeed topical KM issue, unlike using social media, exit interviews, monitoring KM, data/information/knowledge or the likes… Instead, the focus shifted on a deeper background issue: the pacing that shapes our engagement with knowledge work.

And what came out of the chat is really rich – hence this post. It also replaces the transcript which I failed completely at getting in time for software issues (see note 1). The discussion meant to address three questions:

  1. What is the value of fast versus slow information & reflection?
  2. How do you balance the desire to consume and share and the need to think and create?
  3. How do you deal with different information pacing with your relations?

Of course – and luckily – the discussion went in all directions. At the heart of it though, we covered most questions and stressed four elements: (contextual) purpose, (strong) relation, (deep) reflection and (agile) execution… and some reflections about what this all means to us (conscious knowledge workers) and where we might be headed.

How to deal with the maze of time? (Photo credits: Robbie73, FlickR)

How to deal with the maze of time? (Photo credits: Robbie73, FlickR)

The issue of speed was very familiar to all of us, as we acknowledged that knowledge helps people reach the right decision faster (@JeffHester), be it for quick decisions in the heat of the action, or long term strategic orientations… And while we’re grappling with KM, “all the social networks and other offshoots are always “faster” than KM” (@Swanwick). So as knowledge professionals, we just have to deal and juggle with slow and fast information, knowledge and learning. But not just for the sake of it…

Purpose in context

Whether we communicate more quickly or not is irrelevant; purpose dictates pacing. Fast information flows are useful for product management – to get quick information from customers and prospects though e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry, “slow and steady may be the best bet” (@Vivisimo_Inc). @NancyWhite’s gut feeling on this was that: “fast is useful for tactical decisions and reflection for strategic decisions”. Planning helps decide what are strategic goals that require reflection and what operations then need to take place rapidly. “Not every task requires the same attention/care. So minimize time on low impact tasks” (@VMaryAbraham).

And in spite of a society that seems to be driving us ever faster, we also reckon there is a problem with that attitude: as @4KM put it: “KM exists–in part–because of costs associated with fast. Knowledge & opportunities lost” – to which @JeffHester tacked along: “YES! Speed does not equal effectiveness”. This is particularly true when it comes to our working relationships.

Strongly related?

Working in a symbiotic way (Photo credits: Jillclardy, FlickR)

Working in a symbiotic way (Photo credits: Jillclardy, FlickR)

Speed and relations cross over at least at two junctions: In adjusting to each other’s pace and most importantly in building the relationship. Adjusting the pacing is no easy task for many of us because our partners and clients are sometimes entangled in a maze of procedures, distracting opportunities and resistance to change.

A few tips to adjust this: Focus on one big project rather than “100 pinprick projects” (@VMaryAbraham), use “reverse brainstorming” and “future backwards” to identify organisational prioritisation (@NancyWhite) and generally “helping them reflect on their priorities, their passion and related knowledge is critical” (@4KM). The same Alice McGillivray further stresses that “many clients are craving a few successes rather than constant activity. Again, systemic work is needed”.

We all recognise that beyond that pacing adjustment, “there may be something to building relationships, time, and community curation that all benefit from “slow” (@JeffHester). Nancy stresses that “the key is to act in a way that enhances relationships. Strong bonds have a time element.”Sometimes, crisis can lead to quick strong bonds too, but the crux in the matter is that “good relationships yield better results” (@VMaryAbraham), and taht is the first quality step, deep reflection is the next one…

Reflecting in the deep

Rather than slowing down which may feel negative (an interesting question for later), we might refer to “standing down to avert problems” (@BarbaraFillip). Alice neatly captured the problem: “our society has reflection-deprivation disorder, so (we) can’t easily overdo (it)”.

We need to reflect deeply, whether because we find ourselves “following the herd too much” (@Swanwick), because we have to set priorities for systemic change (@4KM), to find the 20% that Pareto says is useful to focus on, or to consider a wider range of issues/possibilities.

There are many ways to reflect deeply: using mindmapping (@VMaryAbraham); using a pen because it’s slower than typing and reflection requires that slow writing (@BarbaraFillip); encouraging shorter interventions such as shifting traditional meetings to open space sessions or even following this example (via @4KM): “There was a Deputy Minister (highest level public servant) who’d put his feet on his desk and reflect for short chunks of day. Radical”.

At any rate, “stepping “out of the flow” needs to be scheduled. Otherwise, it will be forced on you when standard operating procedures fail (@VMaryAbraham) – so we need to cultivate our reflective space by figuring out “at least a few things to STOP doing!” (@NancyWhite). And even if there is a culture of deep reflection, it needs to be taught and can be refined (@VMaryAbraham).

The real point of reflecting deeply, though, is to recognise patterns. This can happen through fast and slow knowledge flows, but “without reflection, we might miss value of patterns?” (@4KM). To do this, it might be a good idea to have “small, quick frequent reflections to capture stuff “in the flow” – (and make them) later available for more thoughtful, slow reflection” (@NancyWhite). In the same vein, @Healthieststate introduces the lean/kaizen approach: “info flows quickly, then at regular intervals (daily, weekly, etc.) hold retrospectives to integrate learning”. This is where deep reflection meets agile execution…

Acting on the dot

Provided we focus on the context, have good relationships at hand and in mind and heart, and we have spent moments of deep reflection, we need to execute our actions with agility. @Swanwick explains: “Agile execution should always be following a priority stack. That priority stack should be carefully (slowly) considered”. Better preparation makes acting effectively with speed possible states @cdn. And @VMaryAbraham reminds us that “iteration speed is helpful — as long as someone is reflecting on results”. Agile support moves go hand in hand with detailed strategic planning (@4KM). This is also the lesson that Kanban offers us, as stated by @OurFounder: “I believe that kanban actually notes the natural constraint of work flow & stops us from artificially exceeding it”.

@Healthieststate raises a tricky issue: “Serendipity happens fast. But, does it take slow reflection and consideration to put ourselves in a position where it can strike?” Is this the path to using intuition in our decisions? An unanswered point for later perhaps. On the other hand, @ourfounder reminds us that “speed specifically thwarts effectiveness, as it promotes multitasking”.

What is sure: We get faster > we get more work > we reflect to find more efficient ways to work (delegate or improve systems) and with this statement, @VMaryAbraham opens the door to all kinds of scenarios about the future…

Where are we headed?

We shared a few perspectives: @Swanwick: “I feel our society is moving towards maximizing efficiency. I don’t see that trend turning” and later “All the little decisions add up to making big decisions that don’t necessarily take us where we want our lives to go”. @NancyWhite echoes this by urging us to “maybe rethink how we evaluate/value things”, following @JeffHester, who is (rightly) pondering: “Do we really want to live our lives as efficiently as possible?” Nancy is also worried that: “it is not just more slow or more fast, but also quantity of work”.

Although Nancy further points that throughout the discussion we are “making a compelling case for the “yes, AND”, for slow and fast”, the last few words that resonate with me are from @healthieststate: “the slow hunch” is the untold story of breakthrough ideas and innovation according to Steven Johnson. Even if info flows quickly…” – there goes a point for thinking of slowing down.

Now is the time to make choices that matter (Photo credits: Swamibu, FlickR)

Now is the time to make choices that matter (Photo credits: Swamibu, FlickR)

Throughout this rich discussion, Nancy led us to a small experiment: to take our hands off the keyboard for 60 seconds to reflect. Alice McGillivray bravely said she’d done 20 seconds. I didn’t take my hands off the keyboard. Hey, I was moderating too so that has to count for something, right? No? Well, I guess we still have some way to go to find that balance between slow space and fast flow.

All I know is: the Twitterchat felt like it went in a split second, but it certainly took me quite some more time to compile this overview. Will it be consumed quickly? And digested slowly?

Links:

In the chat, we shared a couple of links:

Notes:

(1)    What the Hashtag would help generate a twitterchat transcript easily but the service is down. The Twitter advanced search menu is a good alternative but its server kept crashing – and tweets are only archived for a week. Finally I used a mix of going through the Twitter timeline of some discussion participants to recover all their tweets from that time and used Topsy to recover further tweets. The broken transcript is to be found under: http://su.pr/2mPqIo#

Related posts:

Look beyond WHAT to do: WHY and HOW lead to WHO


This is a blog post that I have long postponed but its core is – I think – really important: we tend to focus too much on the job we need to get done. In the process, we tend to overlook  why we need to get it done and how we mean to do it. But most importantly, we do not pay enough attention to who we are working with.

In development work, we end up working with a lot of other people and organisations. These partners have potentially a vastly different approach to life due to their family, ethnic, organisational, functional, spiritual and personal background. Their way of perceiving the world is not necessarily ours. That same ‘baggage’ means they potentially have a vastly different experience and skillset. They may not have followed a similar form of education and carried out a similar set of tasks. They may think and do things just differently.

Why is it then, that in development work – and perhaps otherwise too – we are led to think that we should focus on just doing the job, regardless of who we are and who we are with? How come the WHAT (we have to do) takes precedence over anything else? If development were to be more effective, I think it could benefit from paying at least as much attention to other aspects: WHY, HOW and ultimately WHO.

Typically, a development project will be led by an agency that has a specific way to work and a specific set of concepts they like to work with. But they often fail to share their deep assumptions about these concepts and thereby to forget about the WHY.

Under WHY, we should indeed chart the assumptions we have about a specific initiative and the central approaches and concepts that we think are helpful. We should revisit the project proposal and question our logic, at least properly together with the partners, so that we know what we are doing this for. When I did some DIY with my father when I was 7 or 8 and he would just tell me to ‘bring this wooden panel’ or ‘hold that piece of metal’, I wouldn’t really get it and I generally found the experience frustrating and really boring. When he would explain me why we were assembling the pieces together in this way to improve thermal isolation or to have a better tool cabinet, all of a sudden the picture would emerge in my mind and I would be keen on seeing our work come to life!

Tree & forest (Amandabhslater)

Are we not mistaking the tree for the forest? (Photo credits: Amandabhslater on FlickR)

At work also, by focusing on the activities we have to undertake and outputs we have to deliver, we miss the passion and energy of the bigger picture. And we also miss an essential opportunity to appreciate the world view of our partners, how their concepts hang together, why they think the initiative matters and why they are part of it. But also what they think about our concepts and assumptions. In the process a lot of essential insights may also emerge that prevent later failures.

But it doesn’t stop here. In focusing on the WHAT, we also often fail to address HOW we work. Of course project proposals specify how activities should be carried out and how they lead to the results, but we do not question enough the capacities and specific ways to undertake these activities: Does everyone involved know how to use Excel’s main and more advanced functions? Is everyone clear on what it takes to give a presentation? What type, scope, length of reports are we favouring and why? Can everyone speak English at the same level? Is everyone comfortable with using a wiki? What would it take to have everyone share their stories of change on a bi-yearly basis? Is the connectivity as expected in all partner offices? How often should we get in contact to share management updates, using what channel and why?

If capacities are assumed, we run the risk of not understanding why delays may occur, some of them just due to the necessary trial-and-error process that a less experienced person has to make do with. If capacities are assumed, it may become more difficult to reveal to each other where our weaknesses are and to recognise that we have a golden opportunity to bridge those gaps and to help each other, building the team. So behind the HOW comes a big WHO question…

Now, that looks like a bleak picture. In reality, work usually gets done. Despite not having jointly explored our (and our partners’) deep assumptions, respective fields of experience and skillsets, we cope and we deliver. But in the process we may misunderstand each other, get upset, get hurt. And more often than not we don’t have enough time to reflect and find better solutions on the spot. for the issues and for ailing relationships. In the meantime, underlying assumptions remain wrong and some partners just play the game of delivering, as sub-contractors, not as partners, without having bought into the rationale behind some activities – because that rationale was never made explicit enough. They disengage, when instead they could have built a stronger tie, through the real team effort of explorin g our world together.

In the end, there are two types of people: those that categorise people and those that don’t (lol)! But there are also people that focus on the results and people that focus on relationships. We probably need to focus on both, but over time, while work wanes, relationships remain. WHO is with you in this? And why do you want to do something with them? Isn’t this a key to development?

Related posts:

Share your questions: The personal effectiveness and knowledge survey


What a chance!

What makes some of us fly high? (Photo credits: KenSchneiderUsa, FlickR)

What makes some of us fly high? (Photo credits: KenSchneiderUsa, FlickR)

I always thought that knowledge sharing and information management inside my organisation was left to the basics of organic gardening, that is: chaos, spontaneity and emergence. We always gave more attention to our external projects and clients; rightly so, of course, since our purpose is to work for others… But then you find that you have at times slightly dysfunctional communication internally and ‘pockets of expertise’ somewhat not connected as much as they could. Nothing extraordinary here, we are talking about universal KM challenges, the kind of issues that all organisations are dealing with, to some extent.

What is really interesting in such situations though, most people find work-arounds. As human beings we are resilient, so we adapt. And our work-arounds sometimes fill gaps even better than the policy in place or its absence. The challenge here is to tap into that creative potential, seek, explain and amplify the smart work-arounds already in use in some pockets.  The absence of guidance or ailments of frameworks and procedures in place can be very powerful sources of wider innovation – if indeed channelled.

And so it seems I might be able to work on this set of issues for my own organisation, so I am happy to compile a series of questions to interview my colleagues and find out more about the way they carry out their knowledge work and reach personal effectiveness.

After a discussion with my colleague and partner in KM crime (1), I’ve decided to design this questionnaire around a) explicitly seeking their good practices and tips to reach personal effectiveness and b) implicitly finding out how they use information and knowledge to leverage that.

I would love to tap into your collective smart folk brainpower to find more (or fewer) sharper questions:

Reaching personal effectiveness (explicit questions):

  • Keeping on top of your field: how do you keep track of relevant information for your field of expertise and how do you keep the knowledge and skills you need sharply up-to-date?
  • Planning: How frequently do you plan, on what time horizon and what tools do you use for this?
  • Time spending: how do you fill your timesheet and what are your observations?
  • Prioritising and making decisions: how do you juggle with multiple activities? How do you prioritise, on what basis, with what outlook?
  • Monitoring: how do you monitor your expertise, your work, outputs, outcomes?

Knowledge and information (implicit questions):

  • Identifying information and answers: how do you find good questions and identify the information gaps?
  • Finding information and answers: Where do you find it? Via who? How?
  • Creating knowledge: How do you create it? Where do you record it? Using what systems? How do you find focus and develop a creative environment? Do you create knowledge preferably alone or with others?
  • Using information: What do you use information for? Whose information (what sources) do you use? What for (for research, to write articles, to develop proposals etc.)?
  • Sharing knowledge: How do you share knowledge, with know, on what channels?
  • Documenting and storing information: Do you document discussions and events? What do you document?  How and on what systems or devices? Where (on what systems) do you store your information generally? How often do you do that, when exactly (at what moment)? Do you archive your information? How and what for?

For each of these areas, I intend to ask them about their personal advice or tips and tricks and sources of inspiration. In the process, I also intend to raise their awareness about a number of social media tools such as del.icio.us/Diggo, Slideshare, Twitter, Yammer, blogs on WordPress and Blogger, Quora etc.

A subsidiary question will be to ask them who, in their opinion is, the most effective colleague and for what reason. I hope this will really help us boost our information & knowledge processes and understand some homegrown sources of creative and productive inspiration. There should be some very useful lessons to tease out for the rest of you too – I’ll be sure to post here an overview of the key lessons!

For now though, your questions are more than welcome – make it work for you too!

Notes:

(1)    Jaap Pels.

Related posts:

Fast flow vs. slow space – pacing matters


(The Twitter chat scheduled on 12/04/2011, 17.00 UTC, will feature the following questions: 1) What is the value of fast versus slow information & reflection? 2) How do you balance the desire to consume and share and the need to think and create? 3) How do you deal with different information pacing with your relations and clients? Join us on http://www.kmers.org/chatevents).

Yesterday I went back to the KMers website to see what Twitter chats are scheduled or upcoming. To my surprise, on top of the popular chat topics (there is a board where people can rate the topics proposed) was the one I posted a while ago about ‘speed, vs. quality & depth: how to combine fast flow and slow space? Hence this introductory post for the chat.

This post is about the speed at which we work. I am torn here: how do we balance our work and life between the fancy bells of the faster world and the blissful focus of the slow and silent world?

Slow - fast / can we combine the best of two worlds?

Can we combine the best of two worlds?

On the one hand, we have an opportunity, an impulse and a need to communicate quickly, to share knowledge speedily, to pass information instantly. The opportunity comes naturally with the social media and the mobile revolution that is going on – never have we been so completely connected and able to connect with the wider world. The impulse comes as a logical consequence from the opportunity: the medium makes us. We cannot resist to the flow of signals we received, to checking our updates, comments, likes etc. – fuelled by our knowledge ego-logy. Leo Babauta explains this very well in his book Focus – a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction. The need is what I’ve already blogged about in other posts (1) regarding the importance of not hoarding knowledge, but instead of passing it on quickly to ensure that insights collected quickly inform others – rather than at the end of a process.

On the other hand, we are facing the limitations of going too fast: a) we are developing ever more information, sharing ever more materials on the web and we end up adding to the overall noise – are we really adding value or increasing the risk of distraction? b) deep in the buzzing online swarm it becomes really difficult to concentrate, although that is precisely what allows us to think and to create, i.e. to add value to the info-clutter by focusing on our own ideas, our own imagination and creativity, by adding melodies rather than noise. Thinking and writing takes time – a time that is difficult to carve out in the modern info-glutter’s daily diet c) In the longer run we are also encouraging a type of society that only reacts to short span stimuli. Where is the depth and quality in this superficial appreciation of the world? Are we doomed to tweeting? How can we find time to blog? Can we even write books still? Who will sacrifice time to read them?

So how do you balance (2) the need to consume information and share knowledge quickly with the importance of focusing, thinking and creating in a slow space? What is the value of fast flow vs. that of slow space? How do we adjust to the pace of partners and clients, which may differ from ours? Do we try and convince others about adapting their pacing? In what direction: up or down? A recent article by the Harvard Business Review, are we thinking too much or too little?, ponders some of these questions too.

In the upcoming KMers Twitter chat which I will propose, I would like to focus on particular aspects of this balance:

  • What is the value of fast versus slow information & reflection?
  • What processes would perhaps benefit from going quickly and what processes would benefit from going slowly?
  • How do you balance 1) the desire to consume and share and 2) the need to think and create in the age of distraction?
  • How do you deal with different information pacing with your relations and clients?

Do you think this reflection is worth your time? If so, watch this space, I’ll announce the KMers chat when it’s planned.
Notes:
(1) See Harvesting insights (2): Beautiful KM and Peter and Justin: when and how does information make sense?
(2) This also has to do with personal effectiveness and with personal knowledge management, a topic that was discussed in a previous KMers’ chat.