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A word of advice: stop selling the 100% solution to experts

The Global Knowledge Review - November 2004

 

    

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Victor Newman
One of the best pieces of advice I was given in corporate life was to stop trying to sell 100 percent solutions to experts, especially when working in global, cross-functional teams across the organizational matrix. My mentor told me that unless they are scared enough to listen, they will never forgive you for being right and for knowing something they don’t. I found myself wondering what the costs of having to reinvent the obvious locally were, within our business and how much resource was being invested in replicating the obvious that we could more productively invest somewhere else. Just how much was localised ego that couldn’t see the global perspective actually costing us? This article is designed to share some of the secret Knowledge Activist techniques for building a knowledge culture that works across national and technical boundaries.

There are several distinct problems involved with trying to work with highly-educated technical experts; problems that are often categorised as Not-Invented-Here (NIH) behaviours. The difficulty is that we can get trapped into an “Ain’t it a shame” mode that accepts this block to the sharing of knowledge as though we were discussing the weather, instead of developing tactics to overcome it.

NIH-1, is when experts will not allow a problem to be expressed in a language or form that is outside the language of their particular expertise or experience. This leads to the intellectual Catch-22 of audience alienation through the language of the solution. This is because the language of the solution, the name given to the technique quite literally comes from “another place” that is alien by virtue of the fact that in order for the solution to exist, the problem that it was connected with had to be acknowledge and understood, and a solution developed from that particular context. It is this “otherness” around the language of the solution that means that a solution from another context or business-sector can take up to 3 implementations before it sticks. Hence the difficulty of transferring good or what appears to be “best-practice” from one organisation into another even when it’s an obvious life-saver. An “Invented-Here” partial solution that often works is to facilitate a team from a recipient organisation into building a prototype solution to the problem, and only afterwards exposing them to the generic solution that you already had in your back-pocket. It does seem as though experts cannot visualise, recognise or understand a solution until they have gone through the pain of trying to invent it for themselves. The technique of a master at this point is to deliberately fail to give your generic solution a name, so that they can name it themselves and begin to own it when they begin to spread it around the organisation.

NIH-2 is that you must never present technical experts with a finished product to sign off in short order, even if your solution is technically correct just because you yourself are an expert in your field. As my mentor put it: “they will never forgive you for presenting them with a 100% solution: so just don’t do it. Only ever give them a 30% solution that defines the solution, and design a 70% space that they can fill with their own contribution –without making it too obvious that you have defined the solution for them. The beauty of the 30/70 rule is that of creating a vacuum that naturally draws individuals’ own contributions expressed in their own language.

NIH-3 , the third problem is that the moment you try to teach a problem-framing technique that is outside their field of expertise they will automatically rubbish it. A solution is to appear to invent a technique in real-time. I learnt the hard way that although root-cause analysis was the best approach to understand the causes of failure, because it came from the automotive context it had to be dismissed if formally introduced with an explanation of its pedigree. The ultimate solution turned out to be, to introduce the technique using repetitive questioning (never “why/ why”/) and to use post-its from an already-used pile apparently left from a previous meeting.




Implications

1. Timing is everything. When considering applying the advice in this article, don’t be prepared to demolish all the delicate relationship capital you have built up by making a frontal assault on the NIH culture: the more you push, the harder they must resist.

2. Trying to work across technical boundaries involves leaders in attempting to work in the midst of a linguistic war. In the absence of a shared, overarching meta-language for framing problems, the leader needs to consider creating a shared space in which this linguistic conflict can be overcome.

3. Consider the use of the 30/70 rule, where the 70% space is deliberately structured to draw experts’ contributions instead of their opposition. This may involve building a prototype and then erasing the draft content from it before sharing it.

4. An apparently “naïve” or spontaneous introduction of a problem-framing technique that introduces clarity for a group of experts will disarm suspicion of overt manipulation in an expert audience. They may have to sleep on it before deploying it, and you must pretend that you’re not upset that they refuse to do the obvious.



What is Knowledge Management? - Charlotte Winther



Mini-clip interview for Gurteen Knowledge with Charlotte Winther. What is Knowledge Management? Shot at the Osney Media European Knowledge Management Thought Leaders Forum  in London, September 2006.

Charlotte Winther is a project manager with Novo Nordisk .

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