Professional knowledge and the use of different perspectives

Have you ever noticed how some people can completely erase your desire to have a discussion with them? David Gurteen recently drew my attention to Nancy Dixon’s blog post about the negative impact of speaking with conviction. In this post I’ll review the pros and cons of considering many perspectives versus limiting yourself to a single point of view.

Cloud Gate. Different perspectives.

Cloud Gate. Different perspectives. [Click to view Mike Warot’s photo on Flickr]

In all the heaps and piles of information before you, what is valuable depends on your purpose.

Professional knowledge lends purpose to your actions

Anyone who has a very specific purpose for the information (or objects) available to them will use their perspective to sieve the gold from the dirt:

  • As an information specialist – and in a number of other professions – you analyze and filter information according to what other people need at a particular time. Going in with a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, narrowed down to one specific purpose, combined with (re)search skills, means you’ll end up with the right set of information sooner rather than later.
  • As an archivist, you put together archives – structures – that will serve the needs of the team, department, or organization. There’s limited room for your own preferences – and that’s fine. You’re not supposed to keep every file you like.

Different perspectives urge different actions. If your perspective is “anything can be useful, depending on what you’re looking for” you don’t see gold or dirt, but copper, iron, gold, and lots of other stuff that could be useful to someone. Although at this point the word ‘hoarding’ comes to mind.

Professional knowledge and different perspectives in conversations

In conversations, taking one perspective and pushing it to the exclusion of every other point of view means you effectively kill the conversation. That seems convenient, but people may stop trying to change your opinion and focus on implementing their ideas without your valuable input.

  • If you want to keep your conversations going – and the exchange of professional knowledge with it – taking a leaf from the ‘many perspectives’ book may be just what you need.
  • On the other hand, if you’re reasonable to a fault, self-proclaimed holders of strong opinions may think you lack a personal own point of view.

Aiming for balance is probably your best bet.

The limits of your knowledge

It’s relatively easy to become an expert and out-know everybody else. The true art lies in letting go of your preferred point of view and trying a different perspective. Doing so makes you realize that there is always room for a smidgen of doubt.

  1. Your reasoning may be faulty.
  2. The information you have is incomplete, therefore your knowledge is likely to be flawed in some part.
  3. The mere fact that you’re better informed than the others doesn’t mean you’re also right.

Trying to convince people to trade the opinion they’ve voiced for yours may not work. Pointing out that the object they see looks different from another angle may be all you can do.
We’re all walking the tightrope of knowledge over the chasm of inadequate information. Meet you halfway?

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How to change the minds of experienced professionals

Have you ever suggested what you considered to be a minor change to an experienced professional, only to watch them go ballistic? Somehow not everyone likes changes to the way they work – not even if you leave out words like “change”, “improve”, or “different”.

In this post I’ll show you how you could handle this kind of situation – by sharing some experiences from when I did an archiving project.

One common mistake when introducing a change to experienced professionals

You forgot it’s a change to someone’s work – a big deal for them.

How to help experience professionals change

Change: where to stop, how to go forward?

Just because you know what needs to be done doesn’t mean everyone else knows about your plan, or agrees. You’re going to have to convince them no matter what their manager has told you.

Our team’s project goal was to structure and clean out the team archives. The biggest bunch of paper was kept by someone who didn’t care what his manager thought. A previous undiplomatic attempt to clean things up had not improved his temper.

Why do people react so negatively to change?

People build a set of actions that they know will work most of the time. It’s called experience. Telling them to change is like yanking the chair out from under them. I wrote about the way change projects can go wrong in an earlier post.

In my experience, a lot of resistance comes from people who are very much involved. They have made it their personal responsibility to safeguard certain knowledge.

It’s just a set of procedures. What’s so hard about following rules?

Maybe you feel you’re only following the (new) rules. But rules aren’t people.

Experienced professionals know that many new rules and projects will go away after a while, leaving things pretty much the way they were with a few minor tweaks. If you make a lot of noise, some people will wait for you to leave and for the dust to settle after your exit.

Back to the archives: I knew our objectives. And then I let an individual employee get away with about half a dozen exceptions to our rules. Why? Because I needed the person’s cooperation and even goodwill. That’s why.

Importantly, I didn’t break or even bend any rules. I just:

  1. made sure to ‘weed’ the files as lightly as possible, so anyone could reconstruct the process that had produced an important final document.
  2. stressed the potential importance of the files so we’d have to keep them secure for longer. Within that time those files would probably be digitized, and kept for ever. If not, the ‘keeper of the keys’ would be retired before anything happened. Even he could agree that he wouldn’t be guarding the archives past the age of 70.
  3. personally guaranteed to our seasoned professional he’d be able to access the files whenever he asked to.

How do you convince experienced professionals who don’t want change?

Convincing experienced, critical, ‘difficult’ professionals is the only way to move forward without being pushed back in ways you never anticipated. For this you need to understand the role a person sees him/herself in.

For best results, leave people’s professional identity intact.

Brain innovation: why you need to change your mind

Don’t you just love brain talk? I do. Reading this interview with Janet Crawford (part 2, anyway) was both enlightening and inspiring. It answers the question why many of us – but not all of us – find it hard to deal with change. Here’s my take on ‘brain innovation’.

Stuck in a rut? You bet.

Brain change: Meandering River

[Image: The Goosenecks, San Juan river, Utah – on Flickr, by Jesse Varner, 2005]

By the time we’re 40, or 50, we’ve built an archive in our brains of “things that work”. This knowledge and these actions have kept us prospering for years and we view them as good stuff for that reason. These aren’t just words – our experiences have become part of our brain patterns.

Doing something contrary to ‘what works’ is like walking on a path you’ve never taken because you’ve spent a lifetime believing it ends in a swamp. Starting down it takes a conscious decision – and it may take considerable effort to keep walking.

Career change means brain innovation

There’s all kinds of articles you can read about the ‘modern career’ – if you have the time, and in some cases a handy bucket:

  • “Stop looking for job security, focus on income security”
  • “In this fast-paced, ever-changing society we must let go of old beliefs”
  • “Parents telling their kids to get a steady job-with-a-contract are giving off all the wrong signals!”

Right now, our society is less likely to support steady jobs than we expected 30 years ago. But oddly enough not less likely than, say, 80 years ago.

A few career survival skills:

  1. entrepreneurship (even at its most basic)
  2. networking (investing in relationships with people you don’t need right now)
  3. looking ahead, beyond your current working environment
  4. spotting opportunities
  5. selecting relevant topics and new skills to learn about
  6. learning.

Any job where you don’t need even one of these skills is probably not going to help you in the long run.

A woman ‘between’ jobs in her fifties told me: “Nothing in my previous job [at a local government] prepared me for this. I’m reinventing myself.”

Opening up your mind to new possibilities

In brain terms, changing your mind at a fundamental level is much like changing the course of a river. It takes engineering skill or you’ll end up with a mess and the river will return to its old bed no matter what you try.

What if you’re not a ‘mind change engineer’?

Read. Diversify. Develop new interests, or regard those you have as side branches of the river that is your career. They are not ‘just’ hobbies – they give you a chance to explore a side of you that doesn’t fit in with your current job.

How do you keep your brain fresh and open to change?

Why relationships deserve your time even if you don’t have any

A while ago I happened to read Mark Schaefer’s reply to a comment on his blog. He stated that nowadays there seems to be less time to nurture client relationships since the first few contacts are online. What are the consequences of our online quests?

Marketing concerns: points of contact

Network: How Are Your Business Relationships

Network: How Are Your Business Relationships?
– Cartoon by HikingArtist.com

From a marketing point of view, relying on face-to-face contact means you’re missing part of the client’s route towards making a buying decision – and you may miss out on a sale without even knowing it.

A lot of effort from (social media) marketing is aimed at going where your customer has gone. When you find them you don’t want to annoy them with pointless ads in a place where they don’t want your darn ads.

Content marketing is a way to patch up the hole in the long road of relationship building caused by the people’s access to online information. You want to be found before your potential clients create a shortlist that hasn’t got your name on it.

‘Online’ and the impact on professional relationship building

If you leave aside the commercial impact of having fewer meet-ups, there’s also a ‘human’ aspect that you need to address. Research and experience give you a good idea of what goes on in your client’s market. But to know instantly what’s in your client’s head even without having talked to them recently, you need to have a fairly complete understanding of your client’s personality and experience. It’s hard to really care about people you don’t know, and you’re at your best if you do care about them:

  • if you care you want to know,
  • you don’t care if you don’t know,
  • … it’s a Matrix again I think – feel free to sketch one 😉

All this means just one thing:

Your relationships deserve your time, even if you don’t have any.

If you have a lot of clients you may be able to buy some marketing tool to support this kind of online/offline relationship building. But not everyone has a lot of clients or the access to such a tool (and tools can’t solve every issue). Fortunately you can look at what you would have done in an offline relationship – rather than viewing social media as a megaphone you shout your message down.

You do need to plan when you need to meet up and what you’ll share at what stage in the relationship. Another thing you want to know is if your online content has inspired the trust you want to inspire in your clients. And: what can you expect from them at what stage?

Invest time in your relationships. Risk really getting to know each other. There are probably worse things in life.

Read more:

How do you view the time and effort you invest in your (business) relationships?

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

How much do we grow used to interpreting symbols around us? When it comes to understanding traffic rules for example, a red or a green traffic light is relatively easy to understand. Red means “stop”, green means “go”. The tricky bit is when your kid sees a green light but it’s for other road users.

Now arrows… arrows are tricky by default.

Perception: Meanings of an Arrow

Knowledge of specific conventions tell us what an arrow means.
[OCAL image]

  • It’s up to you to gain enough general knowledge about the world and our conventions to recognize the shape of an arrow, and to understand that arrows point in a direction,  that it’s the pointy bit that does the pointing, and that there’s a reason for it to point.
  • Your next hurdle is understanding that you need to look around you to see what the arrow is doing in its context – to find the reason for the arrow. Why is it here, what is it supposed to show you, is it even there for you – or for the car in the lane next to you?

Just to point my own arrow at a minor detail here: you’re an expert in a lot of ways without realizing it. You just read the stuff I wrote about arrows and conventions like traffic rules, and you’re still here. Now let’s move a step further.

The effect of learning in professionals

I’ve taken a quote from an interesting post about learning and its effect on us: “…once we have learned to see design, both good and bad, we cannot un-see.”

It’s easy to point at stuff you’d like to learn – but you can’t point at things you’re trying to forget AND succeed at forgetting them. What if you told someone “Right now I’m trying not to think about those purple bears over there, hanging out on the beach drinking pink-and-green cocktails with fake strawberries on straws in them. And they’re wearing high heels, which is no joke for a purple bear on a beach.” Check out the size of that arrow 😉

The author of the quote goes on to list examples of how designers, artists, and other professionals cope with the gap between their trained professional self, and their untrained clients. Like I stated in an earlier post: un-learning is possible, but it takes a conscious effort. It’s a lot harder to forget or ignore specific bits of knowledge that have become entrenched in the corners of your brain, than to focus on learning them. (The one example I’ve run into of people being unable to step away from what they’ve learned is not so much designers but IT professionals. We’re all guilty of being an expert at something.)

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

Some things mean everything to us, and nothing to the person standing next to us. This is particularly clear when art is concerned. A piece of art is filled with meaning by the artist. Compositions as a rule don’t drop from a handy cloud. Details don’t miraculously pop up in a painting. A work of art is constructed, and its details are where the artist put them for a reason.

The way we perceive any piece of art is defined by our personal experience. Our general knowledge of the world. Our knowledge about other works of art and any convention we have grown used to. If our personal knowledge overlaps to a great extent with that of certain artists, we’ll perceive their art much the way they intended. On the other hand, if there is little to no overlap – say you’re admiring a 16th-century Italian painting and you’re

  1. unfamiliar with classical mythology, and
  2. not a religious person,

it’s going to take some explaining to get even a rough sense of what you’re looking at and what story the artist wanted to tell in that painting. That artist was creating a work of art with a specific audience in mind. I guess it’s safe to assume you’re not the audience he (probably not she) was thinking of at the time.

Read more:

Do you watch (your) kids learn about the meaning or meanings of the things around them? What do you make of perception, art, and the meanings of familiar symbols?

Hat tricks in business: why change is an unwelcome guest

My earlier post about change management sparked a few interesting comments. Change isn’t always welcomed by the people who ‘ought’ to change.

Why do people treat change like an unwelcome guest?

Change: do you take things as they come? [Click to view on Flickr]

Change: do you take things as they come? [Great photo by Anders Young on Flickr]

People in a business environment are mostly employees, and a smaller part of the group consists of managers, senior managers…

You could argue that change in business means some can’t keep up, and dysfunctional employees or teams show up like a sore thumb. You could even add more (possibly quite cynical) reasons for individual employees to reject change.

Take an employee’s view of organizational change for a moment. Having change thrust upon you for no (apparent) good reason doesn’t help you embrace the process. Especially if you don’t see that there’s anything wrong with you or the way you do your job. But there’s more.

Hat tricks in business

Consider a magician’s classic hat trick in a business environment. Some enthousiastic individual bounces into your office, or cubicle, or wherever, and pushes the hat under your nose. A rather pungent animal smell wafts out. What can you expect? Will you find a cute (but slightly nervous) white rabbit? Or will you end up pulling an unkempt smelly goat out of the hat? Or… worse?

Keep this situation in mind. Now let’s push two distinct groups into the spotlight – call them ‘change advocates’ and ‘bean counters’ – and compare their actions and motives.

  1. Change advocates are convinced that changing [fill in favorite topic] will improve your organization.
  2. Bean counters are convinced that cost cutting will improve your organization’s balance sheet.
  3. Change advocates tell you to work differently in order to achieve more.
  4. Bean counters tell you to work more efficiently so they’ll need fewer employees.
  5. Change advocates believe that a tasty carrot will convince people to change, and say that working differently will make you (feel) better.
  6. Bean counters are of the stick persuasion and say:
    1. If you don’t work more efficiently we’ll fire you.
    2. If you do work more efficiently we’ll wait a bit longer then fire the other guy. Possibly. Unless you grow slack. (If this sounds like Dilbert: I think I swallowed the book a couple of years ago. Have been unable to locate its whereabouts.)

The rest of us are, in the average organization, probably somewhere in the line of fire between these two world views.

Change projects gone cost-crazy

One thing which happens to projects started with the best intentions is that they are interpreted as a way to cut costs by financial teams. Assuming you are in favor of a specific change: if you don’t prepare for this eventuality you could lose control over your project.

How on earth will you combine change and finance without forfeiting every last bit of trust? I would say by starting early and taking the financial side into account from before the word “go”.

  1. Your project plan or business case should show clearly what you intend to achieve and what is out of scope. Prepare a document listing potential side-effects and answer a couple of questions. How likely is it: that this side-effect will occur? That it will lead to a substantial cost reduction? How likely is ‘finance’ to pick up on this possible side-effect and treat it as a fact? How could this impact your project? Evolve a worst-case scenario and look for counter-measures.
  2. Double-check if your plan aligns with any of the plans laid out for your organization as a whole.
  3. Reality check. Meet up with someone outside the financial team, but with a similar professional profile. Risk aversity is a major requirement. Test your plans on this individual to make sure you’re prepared for attempts to hijack a project started with the best intentions.
  4. Make sure you get 1, 2 and 3 sorted out before you enter the bean counters’ den. Otherwise expect fur to fly and the result to be either
    1. some bit of shared Cheshire Cat wisdom on the lines of “if you don’t know where you want to go, you can pick any direction you like” – and your budget slashed, or
    2. your project turned into a cost-cutting tool. A rather ineffective one since you didn’t start your project with the intention to cut costs. And one that will leave any number of employees extremely distrustful of change initiatives in the future.

I hope you enjoyed this post – one triggered at least in part by the comments on my previous post. Have you encountered any ‘hat tricks’ in your organization – or have you seen business change at its best?

X is for Change. Making good ideas work in big organizations

This is a bit of an odd one out in view of all the knowledge management posts I’ve written lately. Yet there is a common background to them: change in organizations.

Apart from knowledge management, there is social business, and probably a couple of other great change initiatives I’m not aware of, but that you’ve witnessed from the enthousiastic launch right down to the moment when the last “new way of thinking” motivator turned their minds to different activities – or launched the escape pod to another company in hopes of finding converts there.

Change in Big organizations

Change for the better? – Image by HikingArtist.com

Big change is bad news in big organizations

Getting an existing company to change the way it does its work may involve changing the organization chart. It’s messy and people tend not to like that. Employees don’t like it because it could be their job on the line. Managers and the people with jobs that start with a C don’t like it because change, real change, could backfire in a big way. That would leave them looking rather silly in terms of return-on-bonus 😉

But they can’t do nothing. So they hire someone to handle the new project. This one person may even grow into a small team. They target groups of people at once, trying to make as many converts as possible.

After a while, budget is moved elsewhere and the expert or team may move along with it to another department. The bar may be lowered because things don’t go as smoothly as hoped.

Small change is… very small change in big organizations

In a big organization, small changes look like background noise. They may still be fundamental changes, but it takes a while for any change to come up to the surface to get some fresh air.

Most people who try to change the organization (or at least parts of it) are experts in their own field: knowledge management, social media in business, or anything else. Unfortunately it looks as though the cash cow is grazing on a different field: that of change management. Knowledge management, social business, and the like, give you something to aim for. Lack of knowledge and skills to help you get there frustrates your whole project.

Good ideas in big organizations need change management

What is change management? If done right, the recipe contains organizational theory, strategy, ideas about how to deal with the human resources side of it all, possibly some other herbs and spices, and psychology (quite a lot of that actually).

Suppose you’re trying to get someone to fly to the moon. Or to abandon their cart in favor of travelling by train. You need to convince your intended converts:

  • that the goal is worth working towards.
  • that your contraption won’t break up, explode, crash or simply grind to a halt in the middle of nowhere.
  • that they can actually operate the vehicle – that they will be trained thoroughly.
  • that they will get real help quick whenever they don’t know what to do next (I just got a flash of the Apollo astronauts calling the helpdesk…yikes!).
  • that they will benefit from their effort – not chucked out into the cold.
  • that there is no true alternative, even though they think they’re sitting on it – that there is no comfort zone.

Make any change look too insignificant, and people will be so slow in moving you’ll barely notice their progress. Make it look too big and scary, and people will freeze up and wait for you to leave and leave them alone.

Disruptive change? No thanks.

Steer clear of the organizational terminators if you really want to change anything.

X is for change

In the course of your working life you may have read articles calling for a CIO, a CKO, or a CMO – and I just remembered a CCO too. Some of them even exist in a couple of companies, though rarely on a par with the “big C”s: the CEO (boss) and CFO (finance).
Based on my own experiences my vote would go to a CXO: a change leader. Just to get the good ideas going on a strategic level. I can’t guarantee it’ll work – but I have the impression it might just make things that little bit easier.

Read more:

Have you ever initiated what would have been a welcome change (for the better) for your organization, or part of it? Or, have you ever wished a co-worker success with their attempts to change anything wondering how long they’d last?