Knowledge Management Lessons from a Sci-Fi Movie

TryFailLearnRepeat1

I recently watched the 2014 Science Fiction (SF) movie, “Edge of Tomorrow”. I like SF stories, and this was a good one, with lots of action and excellent visual effects. It wasn’t until after I’d watched it, that I realized that it was also a powerful allegory on Knowledge Management (KM), offering a several important lessons.

SPOILER ALERT!
The following paragraphs summarize the plot of the movie; so if you want to see the movie first, STOP READING NOW!

For the rest of you… In the movie, an Alien force has invaded Earth and conquered mainland Europe and Asia. The combined forces of Earth are battling the aliens with no success. Now, however, armed with new technology combat suits, the forces of the Earth are confidently preparing to invade Europe from England and defeat the Alien force. But, unknown to the forces of Earth, the Aliens have a secret KM weapon. They’ve learned how to reverse time. Whenever an alien warrior dies, time for it is reversed and it returns to life, but now with the added knowledge of the circumstances of its prior demise. A central alien leader accumulates these lessons from thousands of these deaths and shares them with all of the other warriors. So, as time is re-lived, alien death by alien death, the invading force learns and adapts and overcomes, while the unaware humans, continue to use yesterday’s seemingly successful tactics, only to learn that they don’t work today.

The main character, Tom Cruise, is a Major in the Army Reserves, Public Relations Office. He is brought in to prepare morale-boosting stories. He has no combat experience, and no interest in gaining any. He refuses an order to go in to combat with the troops to obtain first hand material for his stories, angering the Commander of the Earth forces. The reluctant combatant is immediately arrested, drugged, and wakes up in a military staging area in England, surrounded by thousands of soldiers preparing for an invasion of the aliens stronghold in France. Cruise, now demoted to Private, finds that he’s been conscripted into an infantry platoon of misfits who are preparing to be dropped in to France the next day. As Invasion Day dawns, the untrained Cruise and his platoon are dropped on to the beach, and he is almost immediately, killed by an alien warrior. However in dying, through sheer luck, he also manages to kill the alien and in doing so, alien blood enters his body. This unintentional blood exchange infects Cruise with the alien ability to reverse time and retain the knowledge. So, he returns to life, only to re-live the invasion day, but with the added knowledge of what led to his death. This time he lives a few moments longer before being killed. Again and re-awakens with the knowledge of how and why he died this time. These cycles are repeated, literally hundreds of times. Each time he lives a little longer into the invasion day before being killed and learns a little more. During this process he meets a woman soldier (Emily Blunt) who had also been infected in the past with this fight>die>learn>repeat ability. She lost the ability, however, when in one cycle, she was wounded, rather than killed and given a blood transfusion. This saved her life, but also cleansed her of alien blood. The rest of the movie involves the two characters developing and implementing a strategy to defeat the aliens with their own knowledge weapon. So here are the KM lessons as I see them:

1. Knowledge is power and those with better, more current knowledge will out-perform those without. The Aliens perfected KM as a weapon of inter-stellar conquest and have used it successfully for a long time. The people of the Earth, stumble upon the KM weapon, try, fail, learn and repeat the process until they achieve a superior knowledge set and action plan that will defeat the Aliens.
2. Knowledge is gained through action and intelligent failure. The aliens perfected KM in to a powerful weapon. The hero gains access to this KM process, and by multiple trials, and failures (being killed) learns enough to succeed.
3. You can never have enough knowledge. The effectiveness of knowledge-based actions is dependent on context. Context is constantly changing, so our need for new context knowledge and adapted actions plans must also be constant. Learning bias. The Alien view of knowledge acquisition was not as a goal, but as a way of life.
4. Centralized knowledge databases create significant risk. Seeking to build central, “one stop shopping” knowledge repositories, that can be updated and controlled on the surface, appears to be worthy goal, but I believe that this goal is unrealistic, counter-productive and perhaps even dangerous. The goal should be the identification and integration (intelligent searching) of knowledge bases wherever they are. The aliens had powerful and well-protected central knowledge source, but it was also had single-point failure vulnerability which the humans ultimately exploited to defeat them.
5. Shared knowledge is more powerful than knowledge held. The aliens captured planets by using shared knowledge as a weapon. Each time Tom Cruise died, he shared knowledge with his co-star, Emily Blunt, and together they build a shared knowledge base that will defeat the enemy.
6. Be wary of what you think you know. Early in the battles with the forces of the Earth, the aliens “allow” them win a battle here and there in order to expose their tactics, learn from them and exploit weaknesses. The Earth forces assume that context and relevant knowledge are stable, and that their tactics are sound and their technologies are adequate. But, when they try to use yesterday’s successful tactics and technologies in todays battle context, they fail.

So here is my review of the “Edge of Tomorrow”. It can be viewed as a superficial, mindless flow of good action entertainment or it can be more thoughtfully viewed as a KM training film. I give it 3 stars out of 5 stars as an action flick and 5 stars out of 5 stars as a KM flick. Your experience may vary and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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Posted in Better Thinking, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Science Fiction | Tagged | 2 Comments

A Simple Approach to Building Better Project Plans

 

WhyWhatWho5Often, new Project Managers, and even some experienced Project Managers, facing the challenge of planning a large, complex project, are overwhelmed by how to get started. I’d like to offer a simplified approach to this daunting task. There is clearly some risk in using simplistic models to perform complex tasks, but I adhere to the philosophy of the much quoted, Mr. George E. P. Box, when he said, “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  So, keeping in mind, that the devil is in the details, I offer the following thoughts on a simplified approach to project planning.

Good project plans are the result of good decisions. Good decisions are the result of understanding context and marshaling, applying, sequencing and controlling the relevant knowledge resources that will execute the project. Understanding context, and bringing to bear relevant knowledge, starts by asking and progressively elaborating the answers to six simple questions.

Why? > What? > Who? > Where? > When? > How?

The following is a list of the five basic project context building question categories. I’ve also included some typical; but by no means exhaustive, sub-tier questions that should be asked and answered within each category.

Why? – Answers to these questions provide necessary market, business and personal strategic context for the project and help define the MISSION.
– Why does the customer what to do this?
– Why does the business want to do this?
– Why do I want to lead this project?
What? – Answers to these questions define scope and limits context of the project and establish the SCOPE.
– What are the customers project requirements?
– What else does the customer want?
– What don’t the customers want?
– What knowledge resources can the business bring to bear and what is lacking?
– What are the critical interim project decisions that must be made?
– What project baselines will be formally established and controlled.
– What performance metrics does the customer use to determine success?
Who? – Answers to these questions provide the needed knowledge and capability context of the project and define the PEOPLE RESOURCES.
– Who within the organization/business has the needed knowledge and capability?
– Who outside the organization/business has the missing knowledge and capability?
– Who makes project decisions, communications, and customer contacts?
Where? – Answers to these questions provide the location context for the project and define the PHYSICAL RESOURCES.
– Where are critical project execution and Supplier facilities located?
– Where are project deliveries to be made?
– Where is the project team going to be located?
When? – Answers to these questions provide the timing and sequencing context for the project and define the SCHEDULE.
– When must the project be completed?
– When must the critical interim project decisions be made?
– When are project resources available and unavailable?
How? – Answers to these questions provide the execution process context for the project and define the Execution, Monitoring and Control Processes.
– How will customer, business, and team communications be performed?
– How will decisions be made?
– How will project performance be measured?
– How will risks be identified and mitigated
– How will project baselines be controlled and changed.
– How will problems and conflicts be resolved?

The iterative elaboration of the answers to these, and other questions that may be relevant to your project, form the Project Plan. If your answer to any of these questions starts with “it depends…”, then you need more context.

A thorough and thoughtful plan is a necessary, insufficient, ingredient for a successful project. I’ll offer my thoughts on other critical project success ingredients in future blog-posts.

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Project Planning | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Profound Knowledge & the Art of Project Management

 

SoPK_PM Art Logo

Successful Project Management is accomplished through the thoughtfully balanced application of leadership art and science. There are many excellent resources available for those seeking to improve their leadership science competencies. However, few experienced-based resources are available for those seeking to improve their project leadership art competencies. For some time now, I’ve been exploring the idea of using W. Edward Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) as a thinking framework to provide such a resource for Project Managers (PM’s). In this blog-post I’ll share an overview of the results of that exploration to date.

Deming’s SoPK is a leadership competency framework consisting of four interdependent and synergistic elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, A Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. I’ve used these SoPK elements, in a project management context to develop what I believe are some powerful leadership art competency insights, project managers can use to enhance their success. The graphic used at the beginning of this post depicts the SoPK elements and my visualization of their interdependencies. Although no model is perfect, I’ve found this one to be useful as a guide for my thinking exploration and as a framework for documenting my observations and ideas.
Appreciation for a System, in the context of project management, is about the PM’s responsibility to define, and fully understand, the nature, scale, connections, complexity, constraints and cultures of the project, and take appropriate actions. Certainly, it’s no surprise that a PM must understand the scope and dimensions of their project, and it seems at first glance that that is leadership science and not art. The leadership art comes in when it comes to being able to see, and act on, some of the less obvious, but equally important characteristics of the project system. These considerations include:
• Projects are systems of people connected to other people for the purpose of achieving a singular objective. You can’t use mechanical thinking to lead an organic system. This means that the PM’s job is as much, or maybe even more about managing the relationships between the people in the project than managing the “stuff” of the project.
• Project system connections always extend beyond what you typically initially consider in your planning, communication and control thinking.
– Your customers have customers who have agendas, demands and pain thresholds you    must know about.
– Your Suppliers have Suppliers, who also have Suppliers whose performance are critical to your project
– If your project is in a business managed using a matrix organization, you have critical matrix connection obligations and risks to consider.
– Conventional project leadership science approaches cal for PM’s to keep their heads down and focus on their projects. Leadership art demand demands that you keep your head up and on a swivel to be aware of everything going on around you.

Understanding Variation, in a project management context is about the PM’s responsibility to define and detect, the rhythms and dynamic patterns inherent in the project and to take appropriate action on the differences from the program plan that matter. In this area, project leadership science will apply things like predictive metrics, schedule buffers, design margins, second sources, and management reserves to accommodate potential variations from plan. However, in applying the art of project leadership, PM’s should consider:
• The feelings, mood and morale of the project team as a predictor of human error
• Focusing on special cause versus common cause, or “natural” variability.
• Team thinking and style diversity as a deterrent to “group-think”

A Theory of Knowledge, in the context of project management is about the PM’s responsibility to marshal the relevant knowledge of the business, and to sequence and flow the knowledge through the projects people connections so that it is transformed into the desired deliverables. Not much leadership art science is directed at this effort, because most PM’s don’t understand that knowledge is the life-fluid of the project system. So those practicing the art of project leadership should consider things like:
• The PM’s role is a Knowledge Manager who executes the project across the knowledge domain. From the “Known-Knowns”, which form the foundation of the Project Plan, to the “Known-Unknowns” which are the project risks, to the Unknown-Knowns which are accommodated by buffers and reserves.
• Encouraging and fostering a “learning environment” for the project team that may find and avoid “Unknown-Unknowns” and reveal and exploit opportunities.

Psychology, in a project management context is about the PMs responsibility to develop and appropriately use the skills and behaviors necessary to successfully manage the relationships landscape and create a project environment that enables and nurtures the connections between people, and the flow of knowledge. For the most part, the tools that support the science of project leadership ignore this aspect of the job. A practitioner of the art of project leadership however would consider the following:
• The most important competency for a leader is social/emotional intelligence. The ability to sense the mood and motivation of individuals and groups and respond appropriately is critical to project success.
• Politics are inherent in any human system, including projects. As distasteful as it may feel for leaders, they must become politically savvy to navigate their project through this environment.
• In order to earn the trust and really be able to communicate with those whom you lead, you must be willing share your inner thoughts and feelings. As a project leader, your position alone can enable you to demand the minds and muscle of your team. But if you want them to put their hearts into the project, you must have the courage to make yourself vulnerable.

The following graphic is an attempt to bring all of these ideas together.  I welcome your comments and ideas for future exploration of this topic.

SoPK_PM Summary

Posted in Better Thinking, Deming's System of Profound knowledge, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Building a More Robust Team Working Environment

Robust Team Env

 

 

Successful execution requires effective and efficient interactions between the people that make up complex organizational systems such as Project Teams. Project Teams perform work that is difficult, complex, often without precedent or examples to follow. They do it under the pressures of quality, cost and schedule constraints, for customers and sponsors who often have ambiguous requirements, high expectations, and a low risk tolerance. On top of all of these work related demands, each Project Team member must deal with their personal challenges of career, family and life in general. These pressures and distractions pose significant risks for human error of omission and commission.

While it is unrealistic to believe that Project Managers can eliminate these trying conditions, there are ways that they can build more robust team operating environments that make errors a little less likely and lower consequence. Here are a few ideas:

Create a Mutual Expectations Agreement (MEA) with your Team. Discuss, agree, document and sign an MEA with your team that clearly defines your expectations of them and their expectations of you. This should address communications, respectful behaviors, recognition, conflict resolution practices, risk tolerance, and making it safe to ask for help.
Project focus with peripheral situation awareness. Too frequently Project Managers and team members are told to keep their heads down and focused exclusively on the project objectives. I my experience, this is a bad, perhaps even dangerous practice. Projects are executed through productive interactions between people across a family of organizations, which also have their own mission, priorities and objectives. Certainly you and your team must understand and prioritize your efforts so that you will meet project objectives, but in doing so, care must be taken to be aware of, and empathetic to, the missions and objectives of other organization elements that are part of the collaborative effort. As the Project Manager, you must care, and be seen to care about other organizational element’s objectives. This will build critical relationships and social capital that you will need to use at some point to resolve issues and advance your projects interests.
Encourage and facilitate social interaction across the Project family. Building relationships through non-work social interaction, builds trust that will enable and lubricate the interactions they must have later in a work context. These social interactions don’t need to be elaborate or costly, but they do need to take place early so that the relationships are built before they are challenged in more trying circumstances later.
Walk, talk and listen to how people feel. Some used to refer to this as Management By Walking Around (MBWA), but I think its more than that. Project Manager walk-abouts, must also be talk-abouts in which casual conversation can be used to identify team environment issues, before they manifest human error. Move around and talk to people, not just about the work, but how they feel about the work and they way it’s being led. Ask open questions that start discussions. If you as the project manager don’t think you’re adept at talking about feelings, you’re at a disadvantage and you should take steps to enhance your skills in this area. You may be able to find someone within the team with those skills or bring in someone who has the skills and reputation to help you facilitate real communication within the team.
Be willing to be more approachable and perhaps even more vulnerable. To be trusted and get insight peoples real feelings and attitudes and the state of the work environment, you must be seen as safe to talk to. Let your team know how you feel, and be empathetic to their situations and feelings.

Human errors of omission and commission in a complex, dynamic, organic system, like a project, are unavoidable. The thinking activities related to life and work are intimately intertwined, interdependent and often distracting. Distracted thinking can lead to disrupted behavior and errors in judgment. It is unrealistic to expect that your team members, or even you, can leave the activities and issues of life at the door when you come in to work. But by implementing these suggestions, as well as ideas from your won experience, you may be able to build a more robust project organizational culture that will make it less likely for the ever-present work and life stress to manifest as human errors that impact your project.

Posted in Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Risk Management | 1 Comment

The Thinking Time Traveler

timetravelLast week I attended the 13th annual In2:InThinking Conference, “Succeeding with Inquiry – Insights, Knowledge, Action,” held on the campus of California State University, Northridge near Los Angeles, California. This conference is a gathering of people from around the country, and around the world, who are interested in, and dedicated to, the pursuit of better thinking in our work and personal lives. I’ve supported and attended the last ten of these conferences now, and each time I come away with more knowledge, inspiration and friendships. In reflecting on my experiences at the conference, it occurred to me that achieving better focused and creative thinking is a bit like traveling in time. Using the learning of the past, the possibilities of the future, and yet remaining mindful and engaged in the present. My reflection led me to write the following poem.

The Thinking Time Traveler

To think is to travel in time.
On a journey within our mind.
Wiser from lessons past.
Inspired by a future vast.
We explore, yet we must somehow,
Remain here and engaged in the now.

Don McAlister
24 June 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Life, poetry | 3 Comments

Knowledge, Truth and Power

JDPOWER“They say that knowledge is power,” I said, beginning my introduction of the guest speaker at a recent Rotary Club of Moorpark, California meeting. “And,” I continued, “ I think you will also learn today, that Power is Knowledge.” “Power, in this case, is of course our guest speaker today, J. D. Power III, founder of one of the most recognized company brands in the world, J. D. Power and Associates.” “Dave Power is a man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and truth as it relates to the interaction between the businesses who make and sell products and their customers who buy and use them.”

Mr. Power, or Dave, as he prefers, had graciously accepted our Rotary Club of Moorpark invitation to speak about how and why he started his company, back in 1968; the principles, and practices he put in place that provided its foundation for success; and the key events marking the rise of the company to its current globally influential stature. He sold his company to McGraw-Hill several years ago, but of course he still maintains great pride in its accomplishments, a heart-felt fondness for its people, and a strong interest in its future.

Dave Power_030714Dave Power, 83 years of age, as of this publication, is a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, with a clear voice and a quick sense of humor. His presentation to our members was arranged as kind of a “coffee table conversation”, moderated by one of our Rotary members, who himself was a retired auto-industry executive. Dave spoke about his upbringing, education, military service, and early business career and how it shaped his character and led him to start his company. J. D. Power & Associates was a family business throughout its history and during the conversation Dave shared vignettes highlighting the sacrifices and contributions of his wife and children to the business. He also shared fascinating stories that marked both the challenges faced and breakthroughs achieved in building the credibility and customer base that the company now enjoys with the auto industry in particular, but in other industries as well. Those stories, and many more, are described in an excellent biography published in 2013, called “POWER – How J. D. Power III Became the Auto Industry’s Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History, ” written by Sarah Morgans and Bill Thorness (Fenwick Publishing Group Inc., 2013).

The business model he used, when he launched J. D. Power & Associates was that they would plan, fund and execute independent customer satisfaction surveys of auto industry products and services. He would analyze the survey response data, identify issues, create reports and then sell those reports to auto manufacturers, so that they could understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their competitors, and take action. Up to that point, auto manufacturers had been using their own “in-house” marketing organizations to do customer satisfaction research, and Dave was convinced that that process was not providing the unbiased knowledge that was needed. In the early days of the business, J. D. Power & Associates faced a lot of resistance, especially from Detroit automakers. But with good ideas, hard work, persistence and integrity they achieved both the attention and respect of the auto industry, and gave voice to its previously unheard or ignored customers.

I doubt whether Dave Power would describe himself as a leader in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, but as I read his biography and did other research in preparing my introductory remarks for his presentation, it occurred to me that he is, in fact, the epitome of a knowledge leader. Each of us, create our own subjective “truths” based on our knowledge, experiences, values, biases, beliefs and hopes. The same is true of our businesses. With these “truths” we build personal and business decision-making models, which we use to interpret what we see and hear and then make decisions on we will respond. The problem is that the “truths” that these models are based on, can be wrong, or at least insufficient. They create blind spots and a set of beliefs, assumptions, and biases disguised as truths that cause poor decisions. Over and over again, those false-truth based decisions have brought business to the brink and sometimes over the brink of disaster.

As Rotarians, we use our Four-Way Test to ask ourselves:
• Is it the Truth?
• Is it Fair to all concerned?
• Will it build GOOD WILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
• Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So, although J. D. “Dave” Power III is not a Rotarian, and may not even be aware of the existence of the Four-Way Test, has nevertheless epitomized its principles and objectives throughout his personal and business life.

Posted in Better Thinking, J. D. Power, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Life, Program & Knowledge Management, Rotary Club | Leave a comment

If Only We Knew What We Knew

KnowledgeSharing

If only we knew what we knew,
And it wasn’t locked up in the minds of so few.
If only we’d captured the knowledge and shared.
If only we’d done that, we might have been spared.
All of the time and all of the cost,
And all of the promise and opportunity lost.
Ah…if only we knew what we knew.

Don McAlister, 20 March 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Knowledge Sharing, Life, poetry, Program & Knowledge Management | Tagged , , | Leave a comment