In an interview, Michael Schrage, talking to Knowledge Inc., made the following insightful observation:
“I think “knowledge management” is a bullshit issue. Let me tell you why. I can give you perfect information, I can give you perfect knowledge and it won’t change your behaviour one iota. People choose not to change their behaviour because the culture and the imperatives of the organisation make it too difficult to act upon the knowledge. Knowledge is not the power. Power is power. The ability to act on knowledge is power. Most people in most organisations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess. End of story.”
To me – this insight – says “it all”. Knowledge Management really is a bullshit issue! It is only a piece of the jigsaw. It is certainly not the part of the picture that we should be focusing on! What is important in life is achieving things. We should really be talking about Achievement Management – not Knowledge Management.
So let me take a personal look at the subject of achievement management and explore a few aspects:
- Setting Objectives
- Focusing on Objectives
- Learning from Doing
- The Role of Technology
There are good reasons to take achievement management seriously. They include, reduced cost, improved profits, increased quality and greater personal satisfaction to name a few. To my mind, however, there is one overriding reason that makes these others pale into insignificance. It is simply this – FEAR!
Disruptive technologies and worldwide competition are driving a global business transformation. If you have a job – you should fear for your livelihood. If you own a company – you should fear for its survival. The very nature of work for many people in hi-tech and knowledge-based industries has already fundamentally changed. Tom Peters for example, believes that in the next 10 to 15 years that 80% of white-collar jobs will be destroyed or will change out of all recognition.
Remember Andy Grove’s book of just a few years ago – “Only the Paranoid Survive”! Or his quote:
“If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are lots of them and many of them are hungry.”
If we are to survive then from the CEO downward, we each need to develop our own understanding of this business revolution and integrate it into our thinking, our behaviour and our actions.
How many of us have a personal mission statement? How many of us have carefully defined our objectives? How many of us have had a hand in setting our own objectives rather than having had them set for us? How many of us can instantly recall our objectives? And how many of us have our objectives at hand or pinned on the wall in front of us to continually remind ourselves of them? Not many I think.
Objective setting is far too often a yearly chore imposed by Human Resources. It is something that other people do for us (or to us!). We often don’t help set them and we do not always fully buy in to them. In many organisations – their prime purpose is as a tool by which to measure us. At the yearly ritual appraisal, we are appraised against them and supposedly our salary reviewed accordingly. In reality though the objectives of a year ago have often long since been completed and forgotten or have changed out of recognition.
And on the back sheet of the appraisal form – there may be something about training or personal development. It was noted a year ago that you needed to improve your teamwork or presentation skills and that you should go on a course or two. But how seriously were these points taken? How often during an appraisal do you find that another year has gone by and you never did get to go on that teamwork course – you never did attend a presentations seminar. They were all forgotten about in the course of events.
This must change.
- We need to take objective setting away from our managers and start to take responsibility for setting and managing them ourselves.
- We must ensure that corporate and departmental objectives are instantly accessible on-line – not buried in a draw or filling cabinet.
- We must share our missions and objectives with other team members. Our objectives must be open to continual review and change.
- We need to balance doing with learning. There should be business objectives and there should be learning objectives. They are equally important and should be focused on and measured in similar ways.
- We should never accept an objective from a manager as given. We should discuss it with team members. We should redefine and reframe it. In short, we should make it our own.
- We need to get away from the yearly appraisal cycle. Objective setting and review should be an ongoing process. We should review our objectives almost daily and they should be appraised as soon as they are completed.
- The salary review process should be separated from the objective review process. The most important benefit of appraisal should be the learning that is gleaned from the process – not the punishment or reward for doing a good or bad job.
In short, setting and reviewing objectives should be about helping to meet them and learning from them and not about reward or punishment.
Focusing on Objectives
Business is complex and demanding. To succeed we must purposefully define our key objectives. We must then focus on them on a week by week, day by day, minute by minute basis.
During the daily course of business life, however, there are an endless series of events, most small, some large: projects, tasks, presentations, sales calls, scheduled meetings, impromptu meetings, phone calls, budget reviews, appraisals you name them.
The pace and unending flow of these events, the continuous stream of interruptions, meetings called at the last minute, the pressure to meet deadlines, emergencies, and frequent change means that there is little time to reflect on events – they happen, they are dealt with, they are gone, they are forgotten. And during the course of all of this, the really important objectives are temporarily forgotten or forced out of the main stream. It is maybe only during the “quiet” periods that the realisation dawns – nothing of importance has been achieved during the last few days or even weeks.
This is not a time management issue. It is an issue of lack of focus. We need to find a way to help us concentrate on the things that are important. One powerful way of helping us do this is through the discipline of “After Action Reviews”. AARs for short. AARs are a powerful tool that serve two purposes – used correctly they can help us focus on our objectives but more than that they can help us learn from our day to day experiences. So before we look at AARs lets take a look at learning.
Focusing on Learning
We need to take every opportunity to learn from our daily experiences of working with each other to focus and continually reassess what is really important and to improve our performance. To do this, we need to find the time to reflect and understand what happened and what did not happen during the course of our business activities. We also need to learn from it. But given our hectic business life style this rarely happens.
How many times, in your experience, at the end of a project, is there no time for a wrap-up review? There is pressure to start the next project and before you know it the team has broken up and gone its separate ways – it is impossible to get everyone together to hold a meeting and by now there is little motivation. This happens with major projects and is probably commented on – but all those smaller projects and events – they just pass in the night.
What’s more, when a new project starts in a hurry – do we find the time to review the lessons of the past; to talk with project managers and team members of previous similar projects to glean a little of their wisdom to avoid a few of the obvious pit-falls? No – no time!
So guess what? Little is learnt from the experiences of past events and actions; mistakes are repeated and blame runs rife.
Hence, in summary, we do not find the time to:
- Purposefully define our business objectives
- Keep them in mind and focus on them on a daily basis
- Review them at regular intervals
- Learn from our daily experiences
- Incorporate lessons-learnt into our business activities and make them habit.
But it should not and need not be like this. By taking a little time out, by investing a little time, it is possible to focus on objectives, to review events and actions on a regular daily basis and to continually learn from them. This is the rationale behind the discipline of After Action Reviews.
After Action Reviews
An After-action review (AAR) is a discussion of a business activity that enables us to better learn from our daily experiences. In an AAR we ask the basic questions: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what was learnt? Fundamental to the success of an AAR is that is should be held in a spirit of openness and learning. AARs are not about problem fixing or allocating blame – they are about learning!
What makes AARs so powerful is that they can be applied across a wide spectrum of events from two individuals conducting a five minute AAR at the end of a short meeting to a day-long AAR held by a project team at the end of a large project. Lessons-learnt are not only tacitly absorbed on the spot by the individuals involved but can be explicitly documented and shared with a wider audience.
An AAR is a simple but powerful tool that allows individuals and teams to continuously learn from their everyday experiences. In essence, at the end of every event, a number of questions are asked:
- What were the desired outcomes?
- What were the actual outcomes?
- Why were the outcomes different to those planned?
- What was learnt?
An event can be as small as “a ten minute phone call” or as large a “major five year project to build an oil-refinery.” But whatever its nature, it typically has a purpose, a start and a finish and measurable objectives.
An AAR is held at the end of an event. The effort put into an AAR should be commensurate with the size and scope of the event under review. An individual can hold an AAR on his or her own after a small every day task like a phone call to a client. Two or three people at the end of a meeting can conduct one. A small project team can hold one at the end of a conference or a major project team can stage one at the end of a multiyear global project. They can clearly also be held anywhere on the spectrum in between.
- A telephone call to a client
- An internal meeting
- A sales call to a client
- A project
Formal, Informal and Personal AARs
Although the fundamentals are identical there are essentially three types of AAR. Depending on the event an AAR can be
All AARs follow the same general format and involve the exchange of observations and ideas. How an AAR is conducted however, depends on its type.
A formal AAR is resource intensive and involves planning and preparation of supporting materials. An example of a formal AAR would be one conducted at the end of a major project. Formal reviews:
Have external observers or other means of data gathering
- Take time to prepare
- Take time to conduct
- Are scheduled beforehand
- Are conducted where best supported
Informal AARs require much less preparation and planning and can often be help on the spur of the moment. An informal AAR would be conducted, for example, after a much smaller event such as presentation. Informal reviews:
- Are conducted as appropriate by anyone
- Take no little or no time to prepare
- Need not take long to conduct
- Are conducted as needed
- Are held anywhere as appropriate
We can all hold personal AARs with ourselves. They need only be short informal affairs, for example reviewing the outcome of a telephone call to a customer. Or they can take a little longer and be more formal, for example, reviewing your part at the end of a major project. More formal personal AARs can also be held with a coach or mentor.
There are some key points to keep in mind when conducting AARs:
- The climate should be open
- They should be conducted immediately
- They should focus on the intended objectives
- They should focus on individual, leader and team performance
- Everyone should be involved
- They should be linked to subsequent training
- Lessons should be recorded
The Role of Technology
As most knowledge workers have their own personal computers these days – technology can be used to help us set, manage and share our objectives; conduct and record AARs; share best practices and to continually remind us of our missions and the ground rules for what we are trying to achieve. At Gurteen Associates we are developing such products.
In conclusion, I feel there are six areas that are important to helping us better achieve our business objectives:
- Achievement – recognising it is not just about managing knowledge – its about achieving things
- Motivation – recognising that our jobs are on the line
- Setting Objectives – recognising that we need to take ownership of what we do
- Focusing on Objectives – understanding that it is not a time management issue but that we need to put first things first
- Learning from Doing – integrating learning into our everyday work
- Technology – using new tools and disciplines to help us keep focus