Innovative Leadership Requires a “Bag of Tricks”

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Cathy O’Bryan, Indiana University

From whatever perspective your position offers, you know that there is no new pot-of-gold likely to show up on the horizon. In our ever-changing world of content and knowledge management, innovation is essential. Innovation is viewed positively, but it results from change. Change is viewed, shall we say, less positively by most organizations. Both require resources—and in today’s static or shrinking budgets, no new funding source is likely to appear.

To find the resources necessary to innovate today, we need a set of tools. We also need to learn to apply them at the right time to the right situations. These tools do not provide a formulaic process that will ensure that resources become available. There is no coloring book, where all you need to do is learn to stay within the lines. Rather there is a blank page and, as an artist, you must decide what colors, design, and composition will work best. As in all art, the “eyes of the beholders” will determine success, and trends will come and go. Timing will be a factor.

You already have and often use some of these tricks. These are strategies that are natural to you. For example, you may be data driven and always know the impactful metrics to promote your content whenever asked. Alas, sometimes metrics don’t matter. Other tricks, such as campaigning for change, sound too much like politics and seem best avoided. The good news is that you can develop any skills that are not innate to you. Situational change management skills are required when seeking new resources in a scarce environment. You can learn to adapt your change management tactics to different circumstances by scanning the organizational and product landscapes. Let’s first fill up that ‘bag’!

Examine Your Resources

Take a good look at resources with your leadership team: “What can you stop doing?” or “What can you do less of?” Prioritize the content that you manage. Just because it exists is not a good reason to sustain it. Define metrics that enable you to quickly identify topics that are least used. What is the threshold for content retirement? What is the threshold for new content development? The answers to these questions will vary by organization—and they will enable you to adjust your resources to meet demand.

Develop Change Muscle

Although I am not an advocate of change for change’s sake—and I certainly don’t condone the philosophy “If it’s not broke, break it”—there is undeniable truth in the need to develop a culture that accepts change. Having worked in a dot.com environment on the cutting edge of audio- and video-conferencing in the mid-90s, I witnessed an organization consumed and driven by disruptive technical advances. There was no organizational chart, and it didn’t matter. I’ve also worked in an environment where the organizational chart of the department I directed had been static for the 13 years before me and remained that way for three years of my own tenure. That is too long. When change does come, it will be very difficult to face.

Promote organizational change in your own unit, team, or department. Consider shadowing, cross training, and job switching to gain insights into where roles can be combined, adjusted, or redefined. Encourage staff to analyze how to adjust processes from beginning to end to be more efficient. Systemically go through exercises like the Six Sigma methodology of examining the “Voice of the Customer”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_of_the_customer to revise your service procedures. Encourage staff at all levels to make suggestions, and constantly try some of those suggestions.

Embrace Your Contrarians, Your Naysayers

The very folks who disagree with you, criticizing your team or services, are the best possible sources of information for you. These are the folks who compete for resources with you and around you. They understand your weaknesses better than most. You can learn a lot from taking the time to informally sit down with them over drinks or lunch and truly seek to understand their point of view. Why doesn’t the Knowledge Base provide value to them? What are their frustration points? Often you will find that they are less critical than you might imagine, but you will also find that those who voice their criticisms to you are the most useful.

Seeing your services from another person’s perspective enables you to make crucial adjustments that make your services more widely accepted. Simply having the conversation establishes a connection and eventually a trusted relationship. Trust is gold, but it requires time to build. Unfortunately, it can be lost in an instant. Take time to build trust where none exists today. Take time to communicate with your peers, your critics, your staff, your customers, and others at all levels of the organization. This trust and these relationships are invaluable.

Incentivize Meaningful Behaviors

Use incentives and metrics to inform your understanding of your own team. Be careful, though—metrics should be used like a flashlight not a ruler. For example, to measure the productivity of your technical staff, you would never measure the amount of code produced per day by counting the lines of code! Efficiently written code that solves problems is a better measure, but even that metric can be deceiving. Code writing is a creative process. Like all creative processes, it will have plateaus where seemingly nothing is produced, but collaborative discussions and analysis are churning in the background. The SCRUM or agile project method is an excellent example of intrinsically motivating development teams by allowing them to set their own goals (sprints for instance) and then test their completion rate against those targets. Think about how your current performance metrics incentivize staff behavior. Are they truly motivating the results that you want?

Find Opportunities in Threats

The Chinese characters for danger and opportunity are very similar. In fact, when semantically correct, opportunity is read as a “critical point.” Take a look around your organizational unit. What are the gaps? Consider doing a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis. Simply divide a whiteboard into quadrants. Assess each quadrant for your given situation or service. When I was manager of the Knowledge Management System at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, we had only one content editor. However, we had a diverse, large, distributed community of technologists, who were anxious to capture internal technical knowledge and provide self-help to end users on systems and services. The threat was apparent: Too few resources on content development could result in limited expertise on technical issues. The opportunity was to crowd source the content provided by subject matter experts and use our limited editing capacity for quality control. The threat was the opposite side of the opportunity coin. Learn to recognize the opportunity in each threat.

Scan the Landscape from Multiple Perspectives

Think of this tool as the ability to see the forest, not the trees. In The Art of the Long View (Doubleday, 1991), Peter Schwartz points out that it is the intangibles in life—our hopes, our dreams, our fears, and beliefs—that increasingly affect us most. The intangibles color our understanding of situations. Schwartz suggests that we consider driving principles like society (culture), technology, economics, and politics when examining scenarios. What are the cultural parameters? Start there. For example, does your content development strategy include other groups that could leverage your services? What is the relationship between the individual people on your team and training? Your team and software development? Your team and communications? When was the last time you took the time to just listen to their needs, issues, and concerns?

Next consider more tangible viewpoints: Who in your organization best understands the overall budgeting process? How are new proposals vetted? You cannot do this landscape scanning alone; you must seek many perspectives. Only by truly taking the time to discover which wind prevails from this cross current of cultural, technical, financial, and political forces can you ever hope to adjust the sails. For example, if the financial wind is prevailing, knowing that a hit to the knowledge base costs support $.07, while a phone call or email response ranges between $12 and $15, can be a strong metric to leverage.

What is the culture within your organization regarding organizational knowledge? Is it one that values formalized documentation, or is the process more informal and social? Does the organization leverage social media such as Yammer? Are the collaboration tools siloed, or do their structures suggest a more open sharing of ideas and projects? Would it be possible to leverage existing culture to produce stronger, more diverse content by mining these sources? Would this further the knowledge available, while requiring just a minimal amount of new effort?

Also consider your societal or organizational culture in these terms: How tied into project teams are your writers and editors? Is your team tied into projects where they are part of the development process, or is documentation/support more likely to come at the very end of the project when scope creep and cost overruns have reduced available resources? If your staff are valuable to the project during development by creating and managing some of the fix/break tickets, you will be more integral to the core project team—and most likely will be able to mine the tickets for future self-help support needs and content.

We need to build windmills not walls in a vain attempt to protect ourselves from the wind. Find the direction of the wind and adjust your strategies accordingly.

Last but not least: Trying… Timing Matters

Persistence matters, but timing your next attempt and the one after that is more important. It’s ok to ask once and ask again. But if you just keep asking the same question over and over again, eventually the original “No” will become a hardened “NOOOOOO!” Winston Churchill was apparently quoting the much-maligned Nicolo Machiavelli when he said, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” You brought the proposal for funding IT Pre-Audit Training to your executive leadership team twice before last fiscal year. The second attempt was a watered down and less expensive version of the first. Both were quickly dismissed. However, this year the auditors are finding increasing numbers of compliance issues, and there is a new emphasis on security due to recent (heavily publicized) data breaches. Now is the time. The proposal passes with more funding than requested in either of the prior two proposals.

In conclusion, work on understanding and applying these tricks and tools in your professional toolkit. If all you have is a single hammer, you will miss many opportunities—but you can always develop new tools. Practice building your skills: Examine your resources, develop change muscle, embrace your contrarians, incentivize meaningful behaviors, find opportunities in threats, scan from multiple perspectives, and time your attempts. Learn to apply all of these tools at the right time to the right situations. Then watch and wait for your opening, and carefully select which tool or tools work in the current scenario. With a bit of luck, your preparation will meet opportunity, and resources for innovation will be yours. Use them well.

References:
Peter Schwartz
The Art of the Long View
1996 (reprint edition), New York, NY
Doubleday/Currency
ISBN: 9781863160995

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