Collaboration & Knowledge Management


August 9, 2016 Comments Off on Knowledge-A-Thons

Imagine a colleague learnt a technique that would save her 12 minutes per day (or one hour per week).

That adds up to 48 hours per year for a period of 3 years (average employee retention rates). If she costs the organisation $70 per hour, that one tip is worth $10k+.

Now imagine she shares that tip with the rest of the team and it spreads to 10 other staff. That one tip is now worth $100k+.

These are the kind of sums what makes building a community of practice within organisations so appealing. It’s the kind of maths that makes training or reading a book so important. Single tips multiplied by years, costs, and staff members become huge cost savings.

And the crazy thing is most teams spend almost no time even looking for these sorts of tips.

Staff members might spend their own time reading blogs and books looking to serendipitously pick up an idea or two they might one day use. We have plenty of hackathons to build new products but no knowledge-a-thons to build new knowledge.

Imagine the tremendous value that would accrue to those that deliberately and proactively sought out exactly the ideas that would have the biggest impact.

Make a list of where people spend most of their time. Now proactively look for tips that would save time or improve performance in each of these. Make it part of the team’s goals at the organisation to improve the way they work by 5% each quarter. Give them the space to do it too.

Now document each tip and set a weekly 15 minute webinar hosted by a rotating colleague each week to share what they have learnt to save time or improve outcomes. It might be new tool, a great idea, or an entire new approach.

Make it a challenge if you like. Solicit ratings each week. Keep a score table of how useful each tip has been.

Make being better and more efficient an ongoing mission for your team.

Programming Your Colleagues

August 4, 2016 Comments Off on Programming Your Colleagues

The best way to cut down on communication (remember, not collaboration) is to communicate as much as possible up front.

The best way to communicate is to use ‘if then’ rules. Tech types know this as conditional programming. i.e.

If a condition is met, an action is taken.
If the condition isn’t met, something else happens.

For example, let’s imagine you’re recruiting a designer. You’ve spoken to a few and found some you like. You might ask a colleague “can you talk to [prospective designer], see if he will take on the outlined project for $12k or less?”.

This kind of question is going to ensure a dozen or more exchanges of emails. What rate should you open negotiations with? What is the lowest you will accept? What to do if he does/doesn’t accept? etc…

This is frustrating to both of you, slows collaboration down to a grind, and destroys the purpose of collaboration.

We can do much better here by communicating more up front. This means applying ‘if then’ rules to our efforts.

A good ‘if then’ rule might be:

“See if this designer can take on this project for $13k. If not, drop down to $11k but don’t go any lower than that. If he’s ok with that hire him, setup the contract (use our contractors template) and get him started on our onboarding process.

If he won’t do it, go through the portfolios of the next three designers I’ve highlighted here [link], get quotes from each, and send me a list ranked by which you like the most. Make sure they have 3 weeks available and a clear skillset and track record of doing similar work. Check their references and let me know if they check out”

This gets you the outcome you want without endless back and forth to determine exactly what price you will accept, what to do if he accepts or if he doesn’t accept etc…etc…

The goal is to communicate as much as possible up front to avoid having repeated discussions later on. This also forces you to think clearly about the kind of outcome you want from every interaction. That’s a good thing. It helps everyone communicate clearly.

Another example, you might ask a colleague:

“Can you let me know what you think about this proposal we’re about to send out to {prospective client}?”

This is a terrible kind of request to make. How will you let her know? What about the template specifically? The design, the promises, the quotes, the paper it’s being sent out on? What format should the feedback be? When is it needed by (see previous post).

Let’s add some more information and some good ‘if then’ rules.

For example:

“The proposal for [client] is due by this Friday. Given your experience with widgetcorp on installation processes, can you check the time frame, price and methodology we’ve noted here and let me know if:

a) The time frame seems accurate and similar to what we’ve done in the past.
b) The price is similar to what we’ve done before and we can deliver on this.
c) The methodology will insure the best outcome for the client.

Begin at page 11 and work through to page 14 on the proposal document. If everything seems fine, don’t reply to this email. If it’s not, make changes directly in the document and use an in-line comment to quickly explain each by this Friday. If you need to talk it through, schedule 10 minutes in my calendar at this link”

Now we’ve clearly stated specifically what information we need, when we need it by, and added two ‘if then’ rules to clearly state what needs to be done if the condition is or isn’t met. We’re getting a specific person to share specific expertise in a specific area of a document. And we’ve made it easy for them.

You might think this type of collaboration sounds overly demanding. In practice, we’ve found the opposite is true. This quality of communication removes the ambiguity and improves relationships.

Any time you’re asking a question, be clear about the ‘if then’ rules that will result from the answer. You might be staggered (as I have been) by just how much time and effort you can save here simply by communicating a little more up front.

Making Feedback On Projects Easier

August 2, 2016 Comments Off on Making Feedback On Projects Easier

Your project is almost complete. You send it to your boss for approval.

This is where it sits alongside projects from the rest of her subordinates until she has cleared enough time to check and approve each of them.

This is a killer bottleneck for your work.

Can we remove it?

What if we change the message to include:

“This needs to go out on Friday, please can you approve it before then?”.

Now we have a deadline. That sets the project somewhere on the list of her priorities. But it’s still waiting on approval before it goes out. The cost of these delays usually outweighs the benefit of her input.

An even smarter approach might be:

“Let me know by Friday if you want any changes before this gets sent out”.

This removes the bottleneck. If your boss doesn’t get round to it, you send it out anyway. She has her chance. If this project is important enough to her, she’ll make time for it. If not, she won’t. She retains her sense of power. She stops holding up multiple projects.

An even better approach is to make the feedback simpler:

“This needs to go out on Friday so we can still achieve our target of ‘x’ by ‘y’. You mentioned you wanted to check {specific point} before it goes out. I’ve cut and pasted this section below. Reply to this email with any changes and I’ll drop them in on Friday and send it out.”

Now you’ve set a deadline, removed the need for her to go through the entire document to find the area she wants to give feedback on (and helped her resist the temptation to tinker with other areas along the way), highlighted (and simplified) how she can give feedback, and reminded her about the date. Now she can reply via email on the train home.

Your relationship with your boss might vary, so adjust the wording as you like. Just remember to set the deadline, highlight what happens if the deadline isn’t met, and make it easy to give feedback.

Who Is Responsible For Keeping It Updated?

July 28, 2016 Comments Off on Who Is Responsible For Keeping It Updated?

Make a list of 5 really critical pieces of information.

This can be information that’s critical to your team (or to your community).

What are the 5 most important things you know how to do that are game-changers?

It might be how you convert leads to clients, research and develop successful products, recruit highly talented staff members etc…

Now put someone in charge of keeping each of these 5 items updated. This means the knowledge is owned. This person is responsible for keeping the information at the best possible level.

They seek out feedback from people who use the knowledge and update accordingly. They seek out new ways to improve the knowledge. They ensure it’s properly tagged and easy to find. They make sure all newcomers acquire this knowledge.

This is what turns the information you already have into a powerful asset for everybody.

It’s crazy how rarely we do this. Most organisations have countless staff writing up important documents, publishing them, and watching them decay with each passing day. What a waste!

My colleague Todd is probably one of the foremost experts in community platforms today. He knows the capabilities and differences between each platform. He knows the costs of each platform. He knows exactly who to contact at each vendor for the best deal. He knows who can implement platforms and how to select a platform by any client’s need.

That’s a powerful piece of knowledge. The trick is to keep it updated as platforms rise and fall. As costs change. As staff move between different platforms. As new updates are released and we get more customer feedback on different vendors.

This works just as well in an online community as it does in an organisation. Determine the five critical pieces of information people need to know. Put someone in charge of keeping each updated and actually learnt by everyone else in the organisation.


July 26, 2016 Comments Off on Collaboration

We’re working on a book about collaboration.

We suspect the same scientific principles we’re using to build thriving communities can be applied even more effectively to improve the way organisations collaborate too.

We’re losing time and missing out on opportunities every time we collaborate. We’re hoping we can try and fix that.

But we need your help. We really want to understand how you are collaborating today.

If you can take 5 minutes to answer these 10 questions, I would appreciate it.

I’ll share the results of the survey with each of you that complete it. You can benchmark how you and your team collaborate with the rest of the group.

If you can share the survey with colleagues and friends, that would really help too.

Thank you!

P.S. Free video on turning visitors into members.

Should You Call Or Should You Type?

It’s not even close, is it?

Try it for yourself.

Take a recent discussion you’ve had via instant messenger and say it out loud either by yourself or with a (patient) partner. Try to do this at a normal conversational speed.

We took a 30 minute one to one instant messenger discussion on Slack last week and read it out loud at normal conversational pace. It took 3 minutes.

That’s a big 27 minute difference.

If you have 7 working hours each day, that’s 6% of your day wasted. You can extrapolate your own company-wide costs and benefits here (cost per employee time, benefits of your team being 6% more efficient etc…).

It’s clearly quicker to say what’s on your mind than type it, wait for the other person to read it, write their reply, and then have them wait for you to read it etc…No surprises here.

But this changes as a group gets bigger. At around 5+ people, it’s usually quicker to use instant messenger. Multiple people can share and chime in with their opinion simultaneously. We can read quicker than we can listen.

Simple collaboration principles then.

1) If you’re making a simple request to a large group (where any recipient might have the information you need) instant messenger works as a great tool.

2) If you’re having a discussion with a group of 5+ people it may also make sense to go digital.

3) If you’re having a discussion with 2 to 5 people that extends beyond 3+ exchanges (via email, responses etc..) you should always call.

You might be surprised just how much time this simple tweak could help you.

p.s. Can you answer these 10 questions about collaboration?

In The Format They Want

July 15, 2016 Comments Off on In The Format They Want

We recently received good feedback on our design brief.

The design brief itself wasn’t particularly impressive. The positive feedback was more about we took the time to create a design brief in the first place.

It turns out most people looking for designers don’t do this. They tell designers what they want designed (i.e. a logo), how they want it to look (i.e. ‘like Nike …but better and in orange’) and when they want it by (i.e. ‘next week please’).

This provides a designer with too much scope and too little information. You can expect high communication costs through endless rounds of clarifications and misunderstandings.

Designers love working from design briefs because it answers all their questions in a structure they’re used it. Most importantly, it gives them exactly the information they need at the time they need it and in the format they love.

This should change how we collaborate.

Usually when we want something done, we begin with what we want to say, when we want to say it and use the format most convenient to us.

This is a mistake.

This forces the recipient to transfer the knowledge into a format they understand (mentally or physically). This creates gaps and misunderstandings. It consumes more of your time and produces worse results.

It’s always better to put your information in the recipient’s preferred format yourself than wait for them to do it.

Begin with the recipient’s perspective. How do they want to receive this information? (email, call, memo, report, slides, in-person meeting). If you’re not sure, ask. It differs by person and profession.

When do they want to receive this information? Is there a fixed time they need it or a key decision point they want to get that message (one client once wanted information while in the car on the way to a meeting to brief his boss). You can schedule communications to work with this.

You might be amazed how much time this saves and how much it improves working relationships.

The Painfully Unexciting (And Critically Important) World Of Tagging

Everything changes when you see information from the perspective of the information seeker.

I have thousands of documents stored across hundreds of folders in my Dropbox. They stretch back over a decade now. Many of them contain useful lessons, time-saving templates, and material we could use in the future.

Unfortunately many of these are titled “[Client name] report”, “Richard Millington Presentation 3 FINAL”, or “Strategy and Metrics”. These titles make it impossible for the very people these documents might help to find them. This directly leads to a less informed team, duplication of work, and spending time hunting for the useful documents.

If someone asks, I might be able to recall which client we learnt which lesson from or where a useful document might be stored. But as more time passes, this becomes less likely.

In your organisation, the natural employee churn rate means this information is usually lost forever. On a company wide scale, the time spent replicating this work really adds up.

The problem is the creator of this information rarely considers how people might try to find the information.

Few people consider when people are likely to need this information, what they are likely to search for, and where they are likely to search for it.

A few important useful tactics here.

1) Onboarding and direct training. For critically important lessons and training, embed these within the onboarding of employees and direct training of existing employees. This can be via emails, webinars, internal courses, new employee handbooks etc… You have to directly insert this information into the onboarding materials. This usually means ensuring the onboarding materials are stored as a shared doc accessible to most employees.

2) Folders people are likely to visit. For less important knowledge or templates/resources, you need to discover where people are likely to look. For example, instead of saving each client strategy or proposal in a unique client folder, you might create a ‘Strategies’ folder and drop them in here instead. This works with presentations too.

3) Use longer and more detailed tagging. Ensure files are saved under names that are likely to show up in a search. For example, “Richard Millington presentation” becomes “Millington Moz 2014 Sense of Community”. This highlights the speaker (me), event, the date, and the topic. All four of which might be used to search for the slides.

The upside here is proper tagging, taxonomy, and training are an untapped method to save a lot of time. The downside is it’s painfully boring to explain and implement.

Yet that’s exactly the process you need to do. In resources created by your members or your colleagues, you need to ensure the critical knowledge is learned, the folders are structured so people can find the information, and the files are saved using terms people are likely to search for.

Don’t Create Another Cacophony of Noise

Should I tell my team I’m writing this blog post right now?

Should you share that you’re reading it?

Should your team share what they’re working on today?

Well, it depends.

Well intentioned efforts to encourage people to share what they’re doing becomes a cacophony of noise. It makes your inbox look quiet.

There might be serendipitous value within that noise. Two people might discover they’re working on similar projects. You might get advice from someone with experience. The group might also develop stronger bonds.

But you’ll need to deliberately wade through a whole lot of mundane updates to find this value.

And it’s not smart to build collaboration efforts around serendipitous encounters. The value might trump the costs, but the costs are too high.

The goal of collaboration is to achieve your goal faster, cheaper, or better than you can alone. That means dividing up tasks, specialising in what you do best, and accessing the best possible information on the topic.

Can you see the problem with sending and receiving daily updates?

It doesn’t help you achieve any of these goals very efficiently. You can achieve every serendipitous benefit better by deliberately targeting that benefit.

  • If you need information to help with your work, you need to know where to find that information. Who do you ask? Where do you search? What terms do you search for? What specific information do you need? Have colleagues documented this information for you?
  • If you need additional resources to complete a task, you need to know who has time available and what their skillsets are. This is a relatively simple project management tool and access to free time on each person’s shared calendars.
  • If you have a useful article to share, you need to identify who needs this information, when do they need it, and how do they need it?
  • If you want a stronger sense of community, you can set up proper team bonding activities, live calls, establish clear superordinate goals, have more emotive (and open) discussions.

Don’t encourage colleagues to share what they’re working on every day. Focus on the goals of collaboration and build efforts around those goals.

Imagine your employees are racing drivers. They sit atop a pile of information, technology, and processes which all need to come together at the right time. They need only the right information at the right time in the right format. Train them where to find information, whom to ask, and how to ask.

Now any serendipitous benefit is a free bonus.

A Much Better Way To Use Slack (and any collaboration tool)

June 15, 2016 Comments Off on A Much Better Way To Use Slack (and any collaboration tool)

The wrong way to use Slack is as a substitute for email.

This is when you create separate channels based around departments (usually with one general group for everybody) and tell everyone to participate there instead.

The benefit is now everyone can see, search for, and participate in discussions.

The downside is this becomes an overwhelming amount of information, it drastically increases the time spent communicating (this is not a good thing), and everyone is invited to share opinions regardless of their experience or expertise. Your decisions change to accommodate the opinions of people who shouldn’t be influencing the outcome.

A better way to use Slack is as part of an advanced collaboration process that cuts communication, not as a substitute for email that increases it.

Here’s how:

1) Create purpose-driven channels. Don’t setup static channels, use purpose-driven channels. Don’t have a channel for the sales team, have a channel for specific leads, clients, or goal. e.g. improving the sales pipeline. Don’t have a channel for marketing, have a channel for revamping the website.

2) Only invite people when they’re needed. Only invite people to join at the exact moment you need their approval, advice, opinion, or to perform a specific goal. Once they have performed that goal, they should leave the channel.

This is the hardest part. Most people like to see every project through and chime in on every subsequent action. Resist this urge. It leads to people in dozens of channels participating far beyond their qualifications. This means that you (yes you!) will have to leave channels frequently too.

3) Ensure all the information is ready for them. Before you invite someone, make sure they have all the information they need to perform the action you want. And make sure they only have that information. Remove the irrelevant files at this stage. You can drop them back in later. Make sure they work in shared google / dropbox documents linked to the channel too. Remember the principle, the right information for the right person at the exact moment they need it. Make sure you set a deadline for the action too.

4) Set the channel purpose to the next step needed. Set the channel topic to the next step required. It should be possible for your boss to jump into any channel and see what the next step is and what’s holding things up. Using Google Docs you should be able to see the very next word that has to be written. This will save you when people get sick, take vacations, or leave the company.

5) Integrate relevant tools. Using Zapier you can do fun things. You can setup notifications from Quickbooks when invoices go out or get paid. Or have emails from specific people or a client e.g. “” go directly into the relevant channel when you’re on vacation (far more effective than an away message). Or include notification updates from Google Docs or forms. Or have new salesforce leads / prospects sent directly to a sales person. Or add actions to the calendars of colleagues.

6) Archive documents and close the channel. Once the purpose has been achieved, ensure the documents and discussions are archived in a shared folder and close the channel down.

When this system works well, it lets you coordinate tasks, track progress, reduce time communicating, and ensure your team are working to their strengths.

Remember the goal isn’t to increase communication, it’s to reduce it.

What Is Collaboration? Not Communication

June 9, 2016 Comments Off on What Is Collaboration? Not Communication

You can easily confuse communication with collaboration.

You might be talking to your team often, sharing lots of information, giving lots of opinions, coworking on Google Docs, and not collaborating well at all.

This is because communication and collaboration are two very different roles.

You collaborate to achieve a goal faster, cheaper, or better than you can alone. This is achieved by dividing up tasks (to perform them concurrently), soliciting better information than you have access to (from those with the best information), and/or ensuring everyone can specialise in what they do best.

Yet collaboration entails costs. That cost is the time spent communicating and coordinating.

When 5 people are sitting around a room collaborating, these costs rise fast.

If you have 5 people in a meeting for 1 hour, you need to achieve your goal 5 hours quicker or around $500 (assume $100 p/h per person) better than you would alone. If this becomes a weekly meeting for 3 months, you need to achieve the objective at least 60 hours quicker than you can alone.

Improving collaboration is essentially the game of maximising the benefits (quicker, cheaper, better) while minimizing the cost (time spent communicating and coordinating).

Yet most groups focus on maximising the communication (the cost) while minimizing the benefits (dividing tasks, specialising, soliciting useful knowledge). Most groups focus on ensuring everyone is involved in as many different tasks as possible. That’s the exact opposite approach to getting great collaboration.

If you want to improve collaboration, you need a system for dividing up tasks quickly, figuring out how to get the right specialist in at the right moment, and providing the right people with the right information when and how they need it.

Improving Employee Collaboration Is So Rarely About The Platform

One of the first things I learned from Nancy is collaboration can rarely be tackled in isolation.

If you want to improve collaboration, yes you probably need to get a good platform.

If you want people to use the platform, they need to be persuaded about it’s value. They have to trust the person telling them about its values. They need to want to help one another.

Unsurprisingly, people only want to trust their boss, help each other, and ultimately collaborate if they enjoy their jobs.

If you try to tackle just the platform or motivation to use the platform level, you’re probably going to struggle.

Yes, when you’re learning from Jon he doesn’t want his employees collaborating with Joan’s team because of a longer-term dispute, you can feel like you’re shaving the yak.

But it’s all connected.

If you want your employees (or customers) to collaborate more you ultimately have to find, or help, a segment feel better socially connected, more autonomous and more competent at their work.

A few weeks’ ago we invited Ron Friedman – Author of The Best Place To Work to join us for an exclusive webinar.  It was the most popular webinar we’ve done this year. I hope you like it

(if the video doesn’t show, click here).

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