The ‘meta’ reflex, that little knowledge ‘extra’ that makes a difference

My head is still boggling about the relation that some people can have with time. Particularly about what they do with time, this fascinating uber-theme of humanity alongside with love, death and the meaning of life.

The meta reflex - Anticipation before the next 'groundhog day' wave (Credits: T Sea / FlickR)

The meta reflex – Anticipation before the next ‘groundhog day’ wave (Credits: T Sea / FlickR)

I’ll be blogging a couple of posts about time. Starting today with this: the little extra time that smart workers and seasoned KMers take to invest in ‘meta’ reflexes and the world that offers.

What is this ‘meta’ world? The world that is visible with one step back, or aside, or with a helicopter view, or with your third eye. Essentially the vision you get when you step out of your ‘here and now’ and realise there is something important you can do about it for the future – to avoid a Groundhog Day scenario. And here is how it plays out:

Imagine you’re trying to fix a problem, dealing with a crisis, or even just replying to someone, responding to a query, thinking about a possible solution. Most people deal with the issue at hand. That’s great already!

But if your KM meta reflex kicks in, all of a sudden you see another arc:

Hold on a minute! Is this a one-off? Or something likely to happen again? What can I do here and now that will not only help in the moment, but save time for me, and possibly others, in the future?

THAT is the meta reflex that gives you an edge. And it’s personal knowledge mastery at work. It is to knowledge management what meditation is to life. It’s the open secret that helps you avoid the hole in the road. Repeatedly.

Through a practice that I set up a while back with some ideas gleaned here and there (“Steal with pride”, rightfully encourages Chris Collison), I reflect everyday on what worked or didn’t, and every week I also reflect on what I did in the week that helps me get more productive and successful in the future. That weekly look back is my moment of dedication to the meta reflex. At least that. Hardly any week I haven’t e.g. set up a list about xyz, developed a template for abc, cooked up a blog post that I can point back at when people ask me about ___, thought of standard questions for a given context etc.

Sometimes it takes just 30 sec, sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes a whole hour. But the payoff is huge. It means I’m better prepared. I’m mentally sharper. And I avoid some crisis scenarios in the future and having to deal again with the same issue.

A related thought: At the moment, I’m also working on the culture of feedback in the organisation I’m part of (and realise how useful ‘fun, focus and feedback‘ is, as a motto). Just like the more you practice giving and receiving feedback, the better you get at it, so too with practicing your meta reflex. It’s a muscle. Go to the gym, and better still: use every single opportunity to use it in your life!

It’s a real time saver – a life hack factory.

And it’s scalable at the level of a team. It’s the essence of after action review and learning on the spot… so let’s go meta!

What are your thoughts, tricks, heuristics to develop meta reflexes in your life and (collective) work?

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Harvesting insights (2): Beautiful KM

This week, me and a colleague of mine had a great opportunity to talk about knowledge management with the director of our organisation. It was good to see an open mind willing to know more about KM and to hear what our ‘corporate’ thinking about it is – if there is such a thing as corporate thinking. It also gave me a wonderful opportunity to write another post on harvesting insights about knowledge management.

In the previous ‘harvesting insights’ post, I looked at some of the simplest issues that concern KM. In this post I would like to share some insights from my practice as knowledge worker, some tricks of the trade which I hope might be useful to you too… And they’re about seeing the beauty in what may seem counter-intuitive at first. These are just some insights we touched upon with our director, not an exhaustive list in any way.

Broken is beautiful

Maybe the most important one: good knowledge work is not always straightforward. In fact it usually isn’t. Because it’s based on many failures. The potential of learning from failures is really much greater than that of learning from success. From the Mistake bank to AfriFail, the Dutch institute of brilliant failures or the many writings by a.o. Mary Abraham, Dave Snowden or Nancy Dixon about learning from failures… there is a wealth that demonstrates that success is not straightforward and that there is genuine value in looking at what’s broken. A word of caution here: broken alone doesn’t get you anywhere; it needs to be questioned. Simple initiatives fail often enough. Complex initiatives such as those involving knowledge transactions between various people are all the more likely to be failing, messy and fuzzy – quite something else than the beautiful polished process one would dream of. Good knowledge work gets dirty. So don’t go for bling bling, don’t (just) stick to the plan, go with the flow, fail, reflect, and try again!

Broken is beautiful

Quick and dirty is beautiful

They’re close cousins to broken, those twins quick & dirty. But their message is that we should focus on writing and documenting work in short cycles, not striving for perfection. Why? a) because we need to fail, that’s the lesson above but b) also because there’s a lot of value in what’s just being unearthed, it’s fresh and should be shared in a fresh state still. Let’s agree that it makes sense to capture in writing (or in other forms) some conversations and insights so that others can enjoy them too. What matters then? To come up with a beautifully polished product or to get the information out asap? I think you know my answer. I’m not demeaning the importance of publishing attractive materials, it certainly makes the reading easier and sometimes captures the context better. But the point is to keep the momentum of fresh news and hot insights. One of the reasons behind the success of Twitter and to a lesser extent Tumblr is that they allow sharing information in a few seconds. They pass on the essential stuff – and others pick it up all the more quickly. So in your KM work, don’t linger on brush and polish, pass on the nuggets – they will be polished soon enough, by yourself or others!

Up and down – not just forward – is beautiful

What I certainly notice in the water and sanitation sector, is that there is a tendency to go increasingly beyond organisational learning and KM. A majority of organisations still focus on that level, but increasingly they tend to look both up and down: up to other institutions, organising conversations beyond own little navel, cooperating with(in) networks and coordinating their actions with other akin institutions. This is the time of multi-stakeholder processes and of larger initiatives such as the Change Alliance.

At the same time, we have much to gain by looking down from organisations to individuals. It makes sense: people, not institutions, are sharing knowledge. As the focus of KM also shifts towards individuals, a whole strand of the knowledge management field is concerned with personal knowledge management (PKM), particularly since social media are becoming so important in our life and work. A couple of links there: The old (2001) article about the 7 skills of personal knowledge management and the more recent (2010) KMers discussion about PKM.

What this reveals is that more and more institutions are recognising that we are working at a high level of complexity and interdependence. Individuals and other groups of institutions are being recognised as other parts of one same network we are all connected to. The point here is thus: stop navel gazing as the employee of a self-indulging and supposedly cutting edge institution – be yourself as an empowered and valuable individual, and connect to wider causes and groups of institutions – it’s efficient, effective and fulfilling!

Stealth is beautiful

In the May 2009 issue of the KM4Dev Journal, Sarah Cummings and I wrote an article about the role of organisational KM strategies and we looked among others at the type of strategy followed by various organisations regarding KM: on the one hand, a ‘big bang’ approach where the KM strategy would be heavily promoted and heralded by the unit in charge and more often than not imposed on its workers for insufficiently involving them in the process; on the other hand, a stealth approach that builds upon what an organisation does well and expands these good practices. The key message here is that rather than thinking ‘tabula rasa – starting from scratch again’, there is much to gain from looking at what is already going on, what good practices can be amplified and what not so useful practices can be dimmed. In this sense, stealth is beautiful. There is nothing worse than even talking about KM suggesting that it is a special activity. We all talk, we all work together, we all write, we all learn, we all DO KM – we just don’t call it that way. Remember: keep it simple stupid. Oh yes, simple is beautiful.

Time, the great ennemy of creativity... (Photo credits:

Time management is (or can be) ugly

Finally I come to one ugly aspect: what kills the capacity and ambition of people to become dedicated, empowered knowledge workers is to watch their every move and try to link everything that they do with a particular output. A very effective way to kill people’s creativity and motivation is a bad use of time management. Tracking time sheets could be actually useful to understand how long a task really takes (serving a learning agenda, to plan more realistically next time around). In many cases though, it is used as a way to scrutinise how efficient one really is – no gap allowed, no time wasted. No time for chats, no time for reading, no time for just thinking – THOU SHALL DELIVER…

Knowledge feeds on social interactions, on reading and on reflecting. Good KM should go beyond just time; it should settle for quality. And quality is fuzzy, dirty, nosy (going up and down) and sometimes even hidden. Spotless plans will not help us there.

So let’s fail again and reveal all the beautiful things that we went to pick up in the mud. Let good KM shine through!




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