Inheriting Other People’s Thinking

We have all experienced what I call Inheriting Other People’s Thinking. A stack of files, a directory on a server or some other form of “organized” content is given to us, and we are asked to pick up the work from our predecessor. We have just inherited someone else’s thinking. The way the files are arranged into folders, side notes and annotations, even fully documented processes, seem somehow foreign, even if we generally know the topic, or hold the same position. What we don’t do is inhabit the brain of the person who came before us. It may be difficult to catch evolution in the act, but each human represents a story of mental evolution. Regardless of the structural similarities in brains, the details vary from individual to individual in subtle ways. But they vary enough that just picking up work from a co-worker seems foreign.

This thinking, I find, decreases productivity, not in the future, but in the present and probably every day in some way. We are always picking up other people’s work, or at least delving into it. Join a team with a shared workspace, inherit other people’s thinking.

The Knowledge Management Answer

Knowledge management has an answer to this, but it is too rarely practiced because in a world driven by industrial age thinking, anything that doesn’t contribute immediately often gets pushed off. We will make due eventually. We have more pressing work now.  While a person is still in-role, they provide an index to their thinking. And they know you, so they translate their thinking into their representation of your thinking. The better they know you, the better this works. And because we are always in a hurry to get stuff done, we take this short-cut and call it good. But when that person leaves, we then have to look at their work without the index and without the translation.

The knowledge management answer is to create a consensus reality in a purposeful way. Let’s say your organization has a big event every year. Year-after-year the same couple of people run it. They have internalized mental maps for marketing, catering, floor layout, entertainment, etc. They may have created various artifacts over the years, but they have done so for themselves, or each other, and they probably haven’t visited those documents in light of other people taking over the work.

Teaching and Sharing

When the next cycle begins, they should get all of their planning material together and first, organize if for themselves, using their best internal logic. Then they should be asked to teach that to someone else. Even if there is no intention of transferring the role, the act of teaching something creates a need for translation. And that’s a start. It should be someone real, but not someone too well known to the “teacher” in order to avoid accepting cultural and personal shorthand as success.

They should then teach the person. The person being taught should be asked to require clarification to anything that doesn’t make sense or him or her. Everything from acronyms to assumptions about seating and lighting to the order of instructions and prerequisite knowledge. If the reasoning behind something isn’t clear, then it needs to be questioned. Most importantly, the answers need to be incorporated into the content immediately. The goal is to make the content as explicit and detailed as possible.

On first impression, this approach may appear to be little more than just averaging the mental maps. It is introducing another person’s cognitive organizing into the mix, and therefore, another person looking at it might still be confused. That isn’t usually the case. Because the person being instructed doesn’t know the process, they are highly likely to observe that practice much like a child learning a new skill. Since they don’t have any mental shortcuts they must seek explicit guidance on all of the steps. Any extremely high level knowledge assumptions, like how to unfold a ladder, may not make it in because that is a more generalized knowledge assumption. But anything specific should get notes.

Heading Off Productivity Loss in a Good Investment

Now I know I have just made productivity advocates cringe. Think about all of the day-to-day work that you don’t explain to people. Work that you NEVER explain to people. Work that, eventually, some day, someone else will do. Perhaps more pointedly is all of the work done by all of us daily that falls into the category of things we struggle with because we are guessing at what someone else intended. An organization with strong knowledge management proclivities would seek to avoid that wasted work by investing in creating shared realities.

If we take the event above and make it available to others for review, we can then create an even better guide because others may question things that the teacher and pupil didn’t in the first teaching excursion. By moving this material from cryptic personal files to open and transparent organizationally-owned files anybody can look at them, ask questions and get answers. If they are stored in a collaborative knowledge management repository, those answers, will, by design, become associated with the content.

All of those lost hours of interpretation can be regained by making investments in understanding shared practices and creating transparent systems that allow for people to engage with the collective knowledge of the organization on a regular basis. Instead of worrying about how a day is frittered away by some unnamed, usually unacknowledged work in translating someone else’s brain, you can regain that time and apply it to improving practice or doing something else, like creating new value or innovating on something that already exists.

Designing work takes time, but getting by through ad hoc understanding takes even more time over the long term — and it also decreases flexibility. If knowledge is open and transparent, anyone with basic skills can pick it up and run with it, and the organization will know that the “recipe” will keep that person properly aligned with quality, ethics and budget. The ad hoc world is risky because, like a box of chocolates, you never know what you will get.

Key Takeaways

  • Everyone organizes and documents their work differently.
  • Organizations should proactively invest in creating consensus reality versions of work that can more easily be transferred to others.
  • Consensus reality versions of work seek to eliminate the need for special knowledge, and to expose and explain any concepts or practices that may be related to any one individuals mental models.
  • Creating consensus reality versions of repeated work eliminates the non-productive time spent by people who inherit work from others as they seek to make sense of what has been left to them.
  • Documenting work should be part of the workflow, not seen as something extra, or something that is done “as time permits.”
  • Work with your teams to document processes and practices as they occur.
  • Invest in learning while the principal managers and creators are around and engaged.
  • Keep documentation up-t0-date by incorporating lessons learned and other feedback as learning occurs.