The risks of change

The series of posts on the legal environment will continue, but this is a quick post about change and risk.

I recently met Richard Martin, who is a film and cycling aficionado as well as being a member of Change Agents Worldwide. He wrote a fantastic series of blog posts exploring the idea of the cycling peloton as a metaphor for an agile and adaptive company, but today he wrote about stage 9 of last year’s Tour de France in which the Garmin-Sharp team rode in a way that had never been seen before — taking the other teams by surprise and helping one of their riders, Dan Martin, to win the stage. The story is also told in this video, which is worth watching even for those who aren’t fans of the sport.

There is a passage in the video that particularly struck me. Charly Wegelius, the Garmin-Sharp director sportif comments on how the sport has become a bit predictable (at 9′ 13″).

A lot of people who work in cycling have got so much experience that they go to sleep in a way, and they stick to their own plans that they’ve done, you know, for many years. They can get caught by surprise because they don’t think differently very often.

I am sure that resonates for people in many organisations. I can certainly see it in many parts of the legal sector.

The downside of being as adventurous as Garmin-Sharp were is that catching people by surprise is high-risk. Rather than getting a stage winner, the team could have completely burned out and been dropped to the back of the race — and possibly even outside the cut-off time for participation in later stages. There was no middle ground. To make this change, they had to take an incredible risk.

It is not surprising that, faced with such risks, organisations avoid making significant changes.

But elsewhere in Richard’s blog post, he describes all the things that have to come together to make a stage of the Tour de France work (informed by watching the third stage of the race this year as it sped through the Olympic Park in London). This interconnectedness — organisers, local communities, police forces, the teams, the spectators, the weather, potentially malicious elements — makes it impossible to predict the outcome even of  a familiar plan. A radical change may be obviously risky, but doing what has always been done could be riskier.

As Richard puts it:

It is this very interconnectedness, this interplay of multiple systems, that reinforces my belief in the peloton formation as an apt metaphor for a modern, agile, adaptive and responsive organisation. One that has to operate under loose frameworks, tolerating risk, constrained by Government and regulatory policy, responding to shifting market conditions, seeking to evolve, transform, succeed, survive.

I think there is another element, which is that different members of the organisation need to have the autonomy to do what is necessary to deal with things as they arise. The Garmin-Sharp team did that. Jonathan Vaughters (the team manager) set the goal and made it clear that the most risky approach was permissible. Charly Wegelius outlined a possible plan of action with the riders, as well as being on the course in the team car giving instructions over the radio. But most importantly, each rider was trusted to do whatever he thought necessary to play his part in delivering the result — each playing to his own strengths and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the team (and the other teams) as well as the nature of the terrain.

I am not sure that many organisations can work as well as that.

What do clients need? Relationships and story-listening

It is difficult to imagine that anyone in law firm management is not yet aware of Bruce MacEwen’s masterful review of the current state of the legal market, entitled “Growth is Dead.” The series is now up to its tenth instalment and the focus has turned to clients. Whilst the whole series is required reading, this part resonated particularly for me for a number of reasons. It contains some truths that KM folk should reflect on, and one of the comments raises a common issue where a traditional approach often fails.

As all good discussion of clients should, Bruce starts with Peter Drucker. Drucker’s observation that all firms must have clients leads to a brief analysis of the evolution of client service in the law. Bruce identifies three phases:

Phase I: Sell what you make

Firms in Phase I find a comfort zone of things they (as proud and unbending autonomous individuals) enjoy doing, and they assume without, I imagine, really giving it much conscious thought, that since they enjoy it clients will appreciate it, or because they find it interesting clients will too.

Phase II: Make what sells

Phase II is a bit more mature and purposeful. In this phase, lawyers and firms try to analyze what services clients are seeking and purchasing, and then attempt to mold their offerings to client demand.

Phase III: Solve the client’s problem

This phase has several characteristics to commend it:

  • It goes straight to the heart of what the client needs professional counsel for;
  • It’s agnostic as to exactly which practice area or practitioner, if any, is best suited to the matter at hand;
  • And most important by far, it postures the entire offering and engagement around what the client needs, not what you can do.

Bruce is not convinced that many firms have made it to Phase III. (Indeed, he goes as far as to say that he believes “very few firms indeed” understand it, or even the fundamental shift in the market.)

I think the same phases apply to KM (certainly in law firms, and probably elsewhere as well).

The equivalent to “sell what you make” in Phase I is the repository-building approach to knowledge. It depends on a conception of knowledge as stuff that can be gathered, traded and measured. The knowledge or information professional is a gatekeeper for material that is held “just in case” it might prove useful in future.

The usual counterpart to “just in case” is “just in time” — this is the KM equivalent of Bruce’s Phase II “make what sells:”

The distilled pitch is something like this:

“Just tell us what legal services you need, and we’ll get right on it.”

While this takes the lawyer out of the very center of the picture, and gives the client a bit of breathing room alongside, it’s still passive and reactive. To begin with, what if the client doesn’t know or can’t articulate what they need? Worse, what if your firm really isn’t ideal for what the client wants? In that case “making it” for them might not be doing them any favors.

Bruce is talking here about lawyers dealing with clients, but it applies just as well to knowledge professionals working within businesses. This passive, reactive, transactional approach to KM will get you a bit further than the repository-building approach, but there is still no guarantee that your work will really make a difference. And making a difference is essential, otherwise the business can do without it.

Phase III gets to the heart of things:

It’s not about what the lawyers prefer to do or are in the mood to work on; nor how brilliant, experienced, and highly credentialed they are (though I’m confident they are exceptionally so); nor about how much other clients adore them and sing their praises; nor, finally, is it about the law firm at all. It’s entirely about making the clients life easier, less worrisome, and letting them focus on their business and not this potential legal landmine.

A very wise managing partner, who had studied at the feet of one of the builders of a great New York law firm, once told me that his primary job was making the client look good: “The wins are theirs; the losses are mine.”

Good KMers should also focus on making people look good. What does the firm need? That is what should be done.

This is where we get to the question in the comments to Bruce’s post: Bob Jessup asks how to get meaningful feedback from clients. This is also a problem for knowledge professionals. Just as clients may ask for something when really they need a completely different approach, so our colleagues may have preconceived ideas about their knowledge needs (they might want a repository, but never use it when it is provided, for example). How to get round this problem.

I think there are two very different approaches available. The first is to emulate Apple or the early BBC — don’t ask people what they want, but just give them something that you know to be high quality in the knowledge that they will come to love it. That might work if (a) you are absolutely clear about your purpose and never divert from it (something that only people of Steve Jobs’s or Lord Reith’s calibre can guarantee), and (b) your market is still in its infancy.

The second approach is to concentrate on relationships and on natural, authentic communication. In his comment, Bob Jessup says:

Clients, like anyone, don’t like to give bad news, and often find it hard to “put their finger” on what might be wrong. Those in-house counsel giving C’s to the outsiders probably aren’t giving those C’s when presented with an inquiry or a written evaluation form.

That isn’t a surprise — anyone familiar with the work of Dan Ariely and other behavioural economists will know that people often say very different things from what they do. But how do we find out what clients really feel, or what they really need. There is a clue elsewhere in Bruce’s post.

After describing how law firms approach client service, Bruce turns to the client perspective. Drawing on an Inside Counsel survey, he lists the law firm offerings that clients like but law firms don’t deliver. Here are the top three:

  • Secondments
  • Seminars at the client’s office
  • Regular service review meetings

Coincidentally, these are all the best ways to build genuine relationships with clients and learn about their business needs. (As a slight diversion, it is essential to understand that the real needs are business needs, not legal ones: Tom Kilroy has recently provided some useful insight into what in-house legal should be thinking about in terms of their internal relationships.) Having a lawyer embedded in a client’s business or legal team will always ensure that they have a much better understanding of the issues the client faces — no amount of direct questioning (whether by a lawyer or a third-party) will generate that level of knowledge. (Of course, the same is also true for knowledge programmes — as Dave Snowden famously says, “We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.”)

Like secondments, holding seminars on the client’s premises will often uncover issues that might not come to light through a questionnaire. The comfort of being on home ground will encourage people to say things that they would not express in more public situations. This might also be an opportunity to involve people other than the direct in-house client: do you know what your client’s contract managers, procurement teams or sales staff think of the contracts you draft? Again, this has resonances for knowledge people. Whilst we might think we can identify what is needed by talking to our colleagues, and building relationships with them, it is also valuable to find out what clients think of the work that our colleagues do. Armed with that insight, we can ensure that they have what they need to look good in front of the client next time.

When we get to service review meetings, I think we are close to the heart of Bob Jessup’s question. If those meetings feel like mechanical exercises (maybe using a set script or a written evaluation form), then they won’t build relationships and clients will persist in hiding what they feel. What is needed is genuine conversation. The insight we need is tacit knowledge (for want of a better term), and “tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation.”

Conversations need time to develop, but they generate narrative — anecdotes or stories — that are essential to make sense of things. Another way of generative narrative, which might be useful when there is no single client view, might be to use anecdote circles. Shawn Callahan and his colleagues at Anecdote have created the “Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles” — an excellent introduction to and explanation of the method.

In the end, then, the challenge that law firms face in really getting to the heart of what clients need from them has an exact counterpart for knowledge professionals. More than that, the tools for achieving this insight are actually knowledge tools, but only if we situate ourselves squarely in the Phase III approach to understanding and helping people.

Walking into knowledge

Until this weekend, I didn’t know of Rory Stewart. Now that I do, I am not sure whether to admire him or not. His political alignment and social background are poles apart from mine. His lifetime of achievement (at the tender age of 37) makes me jealous. But I love the way he works.

Mellor ChurchStewart is, at the time of writing, Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border. However, at least one commentator believes that he has a more significant political future ahead of him.

You heard it here first – Rory Stewart will become prime minister of Great Britain.

I think this is a long shot. However, Stewart’s record so far  suggests that it is not impossible.

After a privileged upbringing (Dragon School, Eton and Balliol), he served briefly as an officer in the Black Watch, joined the Foreign Office, and in 2003 was appointed Deputy Governor of an Iraqi province by the Coalition Provisional Authority. By the age of 31, he had been appointed OBE for his work in Iraq. In 2004, he became a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2006 he was appointed by Prince Charles to run the Turquoise Mountain Foundation — an organisation working on the regeneration of an area of the Afghan capital Kabul. Most recently, he was appointed Ryan Family Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

So far Rory Stewart looks like a typical member of the new Establishment. But buried in this list of achievements is a rather unusual preference for personal learning. Rory Stewart walks. Between 2000 and 2002 he walked a total of 6000 miles through Iran, Pakistan, India and into Nepal, and then back across Afghanistan. In the process he emulated his boyhood hero, T.E. Lawrence, living with and learning from the people whose land he traversed. As a consequence, he has a view of our involvement in Afghanistan that is somewhat at odds with the political establishment. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Stewart suggests that President Obama needs to reduce rather than increase troop numbers.

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

He made a similar argument in the London Review of Books.

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

Stewart’s perspective, which does not fit any simplistic model — whether pro or anti involvement in Afghanistan, is not the kind that arises from traditional learning processes. As such, it feels more like the kind of sensemaking approach suggested by the Cynefin framework as a response to complex scenarios. He is using a similar approach to find out more about the constituency he will seek to represent in the next Parliament. Walking around the largest and most sparsely populated constituency in England is, for him, the best way to make sense of what is going on.

Walking has given me more than I hoped: living in Cumbrian homes and experiencing the great distances between communities. It allows me to learn from a hundred people I might never have encountered by car. But it has not provided neat solutions. It is easy to see they should have listened to the gritter driver about his truck — but I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district. This is not just about an individual’s decisions, it is about budget lines and regulation insurance and a whole way of looking at the world. I realise that to change government needs not just cutting regulations or giving parishes control of money, but also shifting an entire public culture over decades.

It will be interesting to see how well this works for Rory Stewart, and whether it really makes him fit for high office. There is a real possibility that his very different approach to knowledge and learning might make it hard for him to be accepted within the traditional systems of British government and politics.

Whatever comes to pass for Rory Stewart, I think there is a wider point for knowledge and learning within organisations. Getting out into the organisational community and listening to people’s stories, worries, concerns, interests, views is likely to have more of an impact than reading case-studies, theories, position papers or the like. I read something else today that makes a similar point. That’s another blog post.

Getting attention — the comedy approach

One of the joys of Twitter is that people one follows often point to things that one would otherwise have missed. It was by that route that I became aware of the work of Chris Atherton. She is a specialist in visual perception, cognition and presentation skills. I first encountered her work when someone pointed me to her Slideshare presentation, “Visual attention: a psychologist’s perspective”, which provides a high-level overview of the issue of cognitive load in presentations.

Chris’s blog is full of valuable insights, as is her twitterstream. Her recent post on giving presentations is a great example. I especially like the way it starts — she was going to send some thoughts about presentations to a friend, but it got out of hand.

So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

It’s a great post, and full of really usable advice. Unlike many pontificators about Powerpoint, Chris shuns all those rules about structure.

Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

  • Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
  • Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
  • The 10/20/30 rule

These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose.

Ultimately, good presenters just need to bear one thing in mind:

Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

Chris then elaborates on what some of those rules are. I would summarise them here, but that would deprive you of the experience of reading her post and the excellent comments on it. I just want to single out one of those comments because it threw something into sharp focus for me.

At the end of a substantial comment, Martin Shovel remarked:

A thesis should be expressed in the form of a proposition – i.e. a sentence – the simpler and shorter the better! – that asserts or denies something about the content. ‘My holiday in Italy’ isn’t propositional; whereas ‘holidays in Italy are a nightmare’ is. It’s good to think of your proposition in the following way. Imagine you’re about to give your presentation when the fire-alarm suddenly goes off. Now you find yourself with only 30 seconds in which to sum up the point of your presentation – what you say in those 30 seconds should be your proposition.

Reading this, I was reminded of Robert McKee’s Story, and of the experience of watching a good comedian. In his exposition of good screenwriting McKee is clear that the script needs to hold the audience’s attention (the theme of bonding with the audience runs through the book), and that it often does that by tantalising the audience. Here he is at the very start of the book, for example:

When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.


No film can be made to work without an understanding of the reactions and anticipations of the audience. You must shape your story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audience’s desires. The audience is a force as determining of story as any other element. For without it, the creative act is pointless.

A good stand-up comedian often does a similar thing. For example, here (jump to 3’33” for the relevant section) is Alun Cochrane sharing his thoughts on trains, peaches and Red Bull (depending on where you work, this may contain language that is NSFW):

The way he builds the scenario layer by layer retains the audience’s attention and even allows him room for digressions. It is a lesson worth learning. Few comedians or screenplays use bullet points to make their point (apart from the rare examples where bullet points are the point). They command attention by tantalising, asking questions without obvious answers, by engaging the audience’s brains.

Getting attention isn’t just a necessity for scriptwriters, comedians or lecturers. I think anyone who has a message to convey, in whatever format, (including driving organisational change) needs to be good at this.

Book review: Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

I read Robert McKee’s book, Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting during my holiday last month. It is a fascinating insight into a crucial part of the film-making process, and has helped me understand movie storytelling much better. If that was all it did, I would recommend it wholeheartedly — by shedding light on the mystery of film, it actually enhances one’s enjoyment of the medium, rather than degrading it. If you are at all interested in film, read it — you won’t regret it.

Bee at work

However, McKee’s book raised two distinct issues for me. One is internal to the book and concerns the way in which we do work. The second is an external one — what makes an expert?

Towards the end of the book, having worked through the elements that make up a satisfying story, McKee turns to the actual mechanics of screenwriting. It’s not as simple as starting at the beginning and working your way to the end. This model is described by McKee as writing from the outside in.

The struggling writer tends to have a way of working that goes something like this: He dreams up an idea, noodles on it for a while, then rushes to the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams until he reaches page 120 and stops…

So the struggling writer gathers friends’ reactions and his own thoughts to start the second draft with this strategy: “How can I keep the six scenes that I love and that everyone else loves and somehow pretzel this film through them in a way that’ll work?” With a little thought he’s back at the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams, but all the while he clings like a drowning man to his favorite scenes until a rewrite comes out the other end. …

The writer then does a third draft and a fourth and a fifth but the process is always the same: He clings to his favorite scenes, twisting a new way of telling them in hopes of finding a story that works. Finally … back come reader reports: “Very nicely written, good crisp actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine attention to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.”

By contrast, writing from the inside out is a much more structured process in which the story stays at the heart.

If, hypothetically and hopefully, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, [successful] writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act — three, four, perhaps more. On these stacks they create the story’s step-outline.

Essentially, the step-outline is used by the writer to describe a single scene on each card. These cards come and go — a scene may be written and rewritten a dozen times on a dozen different cards. The relationship between the cards — which are key scenes and which promote sub-plots, for example — may change over this time. Finally, when the writer is satisfied that the whole things hangs together properly. At this point, the story can be pitched to someone else.

The writer never shows his step-outline to people because it’s a tool, too cryptic for anyone but the writer to follow. Instead, at this critical stage, he wants to pitch or tell his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being.

Once the story is seen to work, it is time for the treatment: each scene is expanded into a readable description. That process allows the story to be honed further until it is ready to be turned into a screenplay — dialogue, directions and all.

The wise writer puts off the writing of dialogue for as long as possible because the premature writing of dialogue chokes creativity.

Writing from the outside in — writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of story — is the least creative method.

The description of this process is fascinating. I think there are elements that can be drawn out for wider use in the work that we do. Rather than draft agreements which are then batted back and forth between parties (in much the same way as the screenplay in the “outside in” example), could we envisage the legal documentation of a transaction from the inside out? Perhaps the following key points might be useful.

  1. Why is this deal being done? (In McKee’s screenwriting terms, this might be the “Inciting Incident”)
  2. What are the major points of agreement (and disagreement) between the parties? (Tension between protagonist and antagonist; character and characterisation)
  3. What other issues are at play? Are there any external pressures — time, regulators, etc?
  4. Can the deal (and the answers to the preceding questions) be summarised easily? (The pitch)
  5. Does everyone agree with the pitch? (Develop into a treatment)
  6. Once the treatment is agreed, the documentation (formal contractual provisions) should easily flow from the treatment.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this would work. However, I have seen enough frustration borne of endless argument over the minutiae of legal drafting to be interested in seeing if an alternative would be any better at conveying the commercial meaning of a transaction into legally enforceable wording. Just as dialogue restricts creativity, so does legal drafting. Once a clause is set in Word and becomes the subject of argument, it is difficult for lawyer and client alike to think creatively about alternative ways of achieving the same object, or even whether that object is actually a desired one — consistent with the ‘story’ of the commercial transaction that is being documented.

The other issue that McKee’s work (his book and the seminars that he runs) raises relates to expertise. McKee is an adept critic and analyst of screenwriting, but he is not a great screenwriter himself. His record at the Internet Movie Database indicates that he has written a couple of TV movies and some TV series episodes. Some of the comments on his work suggest that this apparent lack of success undermines his authority on screenwriting. Others use the traditionally snarky riposte “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both of these reactions miss, I think, the fact that McKee never says “copy me.” Instead, he brings a thorough reading of a range of good and poor films. (In fact, one could be concerned by the fact that he relies excessively on Chinatown for examples, were it not for the impressive list of films referenced in less detail but obviously equally well understood.) Out of that reading, he extracts incredible insight, which should be regarded more highly, not less, for the simplicity with which it is distilled into a set of clearly understood principles.

That, I think is part of the essence of expertise — insight translated into clarity, so that one’s audience can hope to achieve the same insight. That is the opposite of the traditional obfuscation which many experts (many in the field of law, I am sorry to say) typically indulge in.

Another aspect of expertise, which needs to be harnessed in the service of insight and clarity, is passion or enthusiasm for the subject. That passion is clearly evident in McKee’s book. He wants to eradicate poor storytelling in the movies by making the basic element — the screenplay — better. According to the Wikipedia article on him, McKee’s insights are not all especially original. I do not think this necessarily matters — his passion brings them to life more vividly than their originators were able to.

There is clearly more to expertise than just insight and passion, but McKee’s work shows how those elements in combination with even a limited body of material can generate real value.

Storing our future knowledge?

Over the summer, I read a couple of blog posts about knowledge storage that I marked to come back and comment on. Separately, Mary Abraham and Greg Lambert have suggested a fairly traditional approach to selection of key knowledge for storage and later access.

Dover Castle

First, Greg issued a clarion call for selectivity in information storage:

Knowledge Management should not be based on a “cast a wide net” approach to the information that flows in and out of our firms. In fact, most information should be ephemeral in nature; addressing only the specific need of the moment and not be thought of as a permanent addition to the knowledge of the firm. When we try to capture everything, we end up capturing nothing. In the end we end up losing the important pieces of knowledge because they are buried in a mountain of useless data filed under the topic of “CYA”.

I had to Google “CYA”. And thereby hangs a lesson. How can we know when we make a decision about recording the present for posterity that the things we choose will be (a) comprehensible to those who come after us and (b) meet their as yet unknowable needs?

For centuries, the study of history relied on official records and was therefore a story of kings and queens, emperors and presidents, politicians and popes. The things that were left behind — castles, cathedrals, palaces and monuments as well as documents — actually provided us with only slender insight into the real lives of the majority of people who lived at any given point in time. Only when archaeologists and social historians started to untangle more trivial artefacts like potsherds, clay pipes, bone pits and everyday documents like manorial rolls, diaries, or graffiti were we given a more rounded picture of the world of our predecessors. At the time, those things were ephemeral — not created for posterity. The lesson we always forget to learn is that we don’t get to write our history — the future does.

Because Google has access to a vast mass of ephemera, I was able to learn what “CYA” means. In Greg’s context, it is the stuff we think we might need to keep to protect ourselves — it is an information security blanket.

Mary Abraham picked up the thread by addressing the Google question:

Folks who drink the super search kool-aid will say that the cost of saving and searching data is becoming increasingly trivial, so why spend any time at all trying to weed the collection?  Rather, save it all and then try Filtering on the Way Out.  On the other hand, look at the search engine so many of us envy — Google.  It indexes and searches enormous amounts of data, but even Google doesn’t try to do it all.  Google doesn’t tackle the Deep Web.

So why are we trying to do it all?

That’s a good question, and one that Greg challenged as well. I want to come to that, but first the Deep Web issue needs to be dealt with.

As I understand it, the problem for Google is that many useful web resources are stored in ways that exclude it — in databases, behind paywalls, or by using robots.txt files. That may be a problem on the public web, but it shouldn’t be in the enterprise context. By definition, an properly set up enterprise search engine is able to get access to anything that the user can see. If there is material in a subscription service like Westlaw or Lexis Nexis, then searches can be federated so that the result set includes links into those services as well as a firm’s own know-how. Alternatively, a firm or search provider can make special arrangements to index content through a paywall. There simply should not be a Deep Web problem in the enterprise context.

But what of the main issue — by storing too much, we lose our ability to find what is important? I think Greg and Mary are right to challenge the “store everything” model. There is much that is truly ephemeral — the e-mail that simply says “Thanks” or the doodles from that boring meeting. The problem with those, though is not that keep them, but that we created them in the first place. If the meeting was that boring, should the doodler not have gone and done something else instead? Isn’t there a better way of showing appreciation than sending an e-mail (especially if it was a reply-to-all)? I think that is the bit that is broken. Some other things are ephemeral even though they do need to be captured formally. Once an expenses claim has been paid, and the taxman is satisfied, there is little need to keep the claim forms available for searching. (Although there may be other reasons why they should not be discarded completely.)

However, I am still concerned that we cannot know what will be useful in the future, or why it might have a use. At the heart of an organisation like a law firm there are two strands of information/knowledge. The first is a body of technical material. Some of this is universally available (even if not comprehensible) — statutes, cases, codes, textbooks, journal articles: documents created externally that we all have to understand. Some is specific to the firm — standard documents, briefing notes, drafting guides: our internal know-how. I think this is the material that Greg and Mary are concerned with. And they are right that we should be critical about the potential immensity of these resources. Does that new journal article say anything new? Is that textbook worth the space that it takes on our shelves? Is our know-how really unique to us, or is it just a reflection of market practice? These are all crucial questions. However, almost by definition, as soon as we fix this material in some form it is of mainly historical interest — it is dying information. The older it gets, the less value it will have for our practice and our clients.

The other strand is intangible, amorphous, constantly shifting. It is the living knowledge embodied in our people, their relationships with each other and our clients, and their reactions to formal information. That changing body is not just responsible for the knowledge of the firm, but its direction and focus. At any time, it is the people and their connections that actually define the firm and its strategic preoccupations. In particular, what our clients want will drive our future knowledge needs. If we can predict what our future clients commercial concerns and drivers will be, then we can confidently know what we should store, and what to discard. I don’t think I can do that. As a result, we need to retain access to more than might seem useful today.

Patrick Lambe catches this tension neatly in his post “The War Between Awareness and Memory.” I looked at that in my last post (five weeks ago — August really isn’t conducive to blogging). As I was writing this one, I recalled words I last read thirty years ago. This is how John Dos Passos caught the same mood in the closing words of the eponymous prose poem that opens the single volume edition of his great novel U.S.A.

It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, …

but in his mother’s words telling about longago, in his father’s telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, …

it was in the speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U.S.A.

U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley finged with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms at Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home.But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.

Sometimes questions about the “laws bound in calf” or “dogeared historybooks” are less important, maybe even a distraction. The real life and future knowledge of the firm is the speech of the people. That cannot be reconstructed. We need to be aware of all the ways in which we can preserve and retain access to it, for use when a client comes up with a new conundrum for us to help them resolve.

Book review: Made to Stick

This has been a Summer of story for me. Back in June, I attended a workshop run by Shawn Callahan on “Storytelling for Business Leaders”. I was vaguely aware (from reading Shawn’s blog if nothing else) of the power of narrative, but he drew out the key elements really well. Now I realise that a lot of what I thought were stories were in fact limp examples. Even a good example can have some persuasive power, but a story with the right elements is by its nature indisputable.

Do not sit -- Haddon Hall

Towards the end of the workshop, Shawn referred positively to Made to Stick, which prompted me to move it from my wishlist and actually buy it. Written by two brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, it draws out six characteristics of ideas that stick in people’s minds. (The archetype for sticky ideas is provided by a wealth of urban legends, which prove staggeringly resistant to rebuttal.) Pleasingly, the Heaths have made sure the initial letters of these characteristics form a neat mnemonic SUCCESs.

  • S: Simple
  • U: Unexpected
  • C: Concrete
  • C: Credible
  • E: Emotional
  • S: Stories

There is a bit of circularity here: the Heaths advocate the story form both as a container for the other characteristics and as a characteristic in itself.

The book is an easy read, because it is well constructed (naturally, it is suffused with stories and examples) not because it is simplistic. The authors make sure that we understand that there is some real analysis underpinning this work. In some respects, therefore, this can be read as a companion, practical, volume to Predictably Irrational. There is a close relationship between our human respect for stories and the behavioural economics of Dan Ariely. (And Ariely himself uses a lot of story-based examples.)

For me, the key message of the book (and of Shawn’s workshop) is that you can’t argue against a story — that is someone’s experience, not a carefully constructed debating point. That’s why we can’t make horses drink — all we have available to us is blunt persuasion — if we could tell them stories, we could engage more usefully with them.

Recently Mary Abraham highlighted a real issue we often face in convincing people that something is good for them in her post “The Four Chickens Problem.” She likens the problems we have persuading people of the merits of Enterprise 2.0 (although any “jam tomorrow” solution is likely to raise similar issues) to the challenges faced by organisations trying to eradicate malaria.

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets.

Why do they want chickens rather than nets? Because the immediate concrete need for food is more obvious than the future abstract goal of eliminating disease. Mary’s solution to similar problems in the business context centres on persuasion.

In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people. You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.

In a comment on Mary’s post, Jack Vinson proposes another approach, using a coaching model:

Even better than educating people is to lead them through a discussion of the core problems and mechanisms for their solution. It is so much more effective to have them come up with the solution, even if it is the same one you would have presented 30 minutes ago. Then you have a much better chance of challenging the solution and presenting its benefits / drawbacks, as you will have their general agreement that it is the right thing to do.

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

You may have noticed that I have been including images in my posts recently. In part this is just to please myself — apart from one (attributed) example, they are all pictures that I have taken. Largely, however, it is a distraction from my usually wordy posts. Selecting the image can be a bit of a challenge — I like to see a link between the image and the text.  This one was easy.

Earlier this month, we took advantage of the sun to visit a bit of local history, Haddon Hall (famous for being the backdrop to a number of period dramas). Like many such places, they need persuade visitors to be careful with the historic furnishings. The normal approach to this problem is to rope things off or to put notices on chairs telling people not to sit on them. Instead, what they have done at Haddon Hall is simply to place a dried teasel on the chairs and benches. Nobody would sit on a teasel, would they? Without an unsightly rope or notice, they have communicated an important message to visitors. A message made to stick.

So, if you have ideas you need to communicate, Made to Stick will help immensely — it is certainly a worthwhile purchase for people in a range of roles. For those interested in storytelling as a leadership tool, Shawn is running a webinar “Three Questions We Usually Get from Leaders About Storytelling: Reflections, Discussion & Tools” with Terrence Gargiulo next month. (The webinar is running twice, to make the most of timezones.)

Are your leaders great storytellers? And, why should you care anyway?

With over forty years of combined experience, two of the world’s leading narrative consultants divulge some of what they have learned. Join Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and Terrence Gargiulo of for a 45-minute rousing interactive discussion rich with examples and practical tools.

I will be attending the webinar to continue my Summer of story; I’m looking forward to it.