More observable work discussion #owork

Man at WorkThe local Boston chapter of the SIKM Leaders group met Thursday morning at the Information Architected offices (thanks, Dan).  The usual way of this group is to do introductions and elicit topics.  I took a pass when it came to my "turn," but then the moderator remembered to ask me again at the end.  Based on the other ideas people mentioned, it reminded me of the idea of observable work that I am seeing in many places lately. 

As it turned out, my comments about observable work struck a chord with people, and we riffed on the idea for about an hour, touching on a number of other topics that people mentioned that they were top of mind for them.

Conversation.  One of the topics that kept coming around and around was the idea of making things visible by talking about them.  And one way to start having that conversation could be to have some kind of observable evidence of the work.  I don't think a cluttered or messy workspace is the answer, because then it could be overwhelming to the casual visitor, but something like a whiteboard that lists active work and pending work (a la Personal Kanban).  Or maybe a regular stand-up meeting where people discuss their current activities and where they are stuck - with the goal of getting input and guidance from your peers, such as the Scrum for Research (SCORE) Group Management initiative.  This input can be invaluable to anyone - expert or novice - as they go through their work.  We rarely work completely alone anyway, why not invite comment and feedback on a regular basis? 

Besides, If I don't know what you are doing, I can't help you.  (Thanks, Art Shelley for that one.  Also reminiscent of "We only know what we know when we need to know it." Polanyi / Snowden) 

Scraps and hints.  This led to some interesting discussion about the "scraps" one leaves behind as they do their work.  If others could see your "scraps" or your not-quite-done work efforts, they might learn something about what you are doing.  They might also be able to pick up one of those scraps and find it interesting - more interesting maybe than you did yourself. 

Tribes and trust.  On the other hand, there is a lot of concern about these scraps - and about observable work in general.  Individuals often don't like to show their half-baked ideas due to fear: fear of ridicule, fear that it isn't perfect, lack of trust with what will become of the partial work.  This led to a bit of a conversation about trust and the kinds of organizations where this might be more likely to work.  I threw out the idea of tribal organizations - organizations that are in the higher functioning tribal categories have overcome this fear and implicitly trust each other to move in the right directions.  Another thread of the discussion clicked onto the idea of trust needing to be reciprocal: it's difficult to be the lone person out there sharing their process when everyone else is closed. 

And then organizations as a whole are concerned that if this partial work sits around too long, it can become grounds for legal action (discoverability).  This is a fact of life.  One interesting aspect that came up on twitter (thanks Brian and Lloyd) is that these partial ideas are already out there on your corporate networks, but they are buried in emails or draft documents sitting on people's computers and network shares.  Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge this and get it out in the open where the discussions can be had and corrections made before trouble occurs?  (Evidence of this: Matt Homann's recent post Stop Negotiating Via Email - people already do it!) 

Output vs Outcome.  Art Shelley clarified a discussion point that our work is about the outcome - what is the overall goal?  The goal is achieved by any number of people and processes interacting together.  But we are too often focused on the output - the thing.  And this is often only an intermediate point in the overall goal anyway.  Does that thing need to be created at all?  Can we get to the goal faster by having that regular interaction? 

Technology or People.  I find it interesting that this discussion - maybe it is the crowd - often falls to technologies associated with observable work.  We talked about wikis and microblogging (Twitter and Yammer) and SharePoint and a few others.  But the thing that really seems to be the core of observable work is the conversation that can happen as a result.  If I make my work visible - either online or on a whiteboard - but no one sees it, then what is the point?  (Maybe I can be a more personally effective.)  I think each organization needs to consider what makes sense for them.  A far-flung project team pretty much needs something electronic, but the team that are co-located might be better served by a physical object.  I'd love to hear / see what people are doing in this regard.

[Photo: "Man at Work" by Marco Vianna]

1 Comment(s)

Kate Pugh Author Profile Page said:

Jack - your observations are terrific. I would also agree that making knowledge observable is critical for us to ignite those conversations, make connections between uses of our know-how, and finally put the know-how into productive new applications. The best facilitators I know use the flip charts and idea-displays liberally, and encourage participants to do so, as well. Not only does that make what we believe and say "real," but it also keeps people at attention, respecting each other, and investing their resourceful energy, even in this attention-deficit-disorder world.

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