Or — why you shouldn’t try to know everything
I’ve really gotten into podcasts lately — they are accessible, they are free, and there’s a ton of them. A couple of days back The Minimalists caught my attention. Podcast authors spread the ideas of how to live meaningful lives with less. Just to make it clear — I’m not even close to being a minimalist. If there’s something to buy, I’m on it. However, one of their episodes, mysteriously named “Access”, sucked me in completely. I got so affected by the topic I wasn’t able to get it out of my head ever since.
In the aforementioned episode, hosts Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus discuss ownership of things versus access to things with Ryan Delk from Omni. The basic idea behind the topic is that people of our generation are trying to own everything while losing access to what they actually need. I see this as a huge issue as well and I believe it is not limited to the items we buy.
We will never own everything
There is no doubt that it is impossible to own everything for most of us. Yet somehow we are still trying to do that. There was a simple yet very accurate example provided in the podcast. Imagine this — you own a house with a two-car sized garage. You also own a lot of stuff you rarely use — a ladder, a drill, a drone, a DSLR, and lots more. You are obviously keeping all of these things in your garage as you do not need them most of the time. Your garage eventually gets so overloaded that there is no space left for any of your cars. What’s worse — you are about to travel to Greece, you need your DSLR but it is so deep inside of your garage you do not have enough time to unload everything for the access to the camera. This leads to the vacation without quality pictures and that sucks!
This perfectly illustrates the paradox of owning more while owning less at the same time. I believe this fits well into our career lives as well. What we own and what we want to own in our jobs is knowledge. Usually, we want to get involved in our businesses as much as possible and the most straightforward way to achieve this is to try to know everything that’s going on around us. We think that by having more information, we will be able to participate in more meetings and become a part of more of the decisions being made. Well — this is not entirely true. Why? Try to re-imagine our garage situation with a few changes — replace the garage with your head and look at every single piece of information you are receiving as a separate item. You will see that we face the same issue — our minds get overloaded and the accessibility of information decreases.
Our brains are not designed to remember everything as garages are not designed to fit everything in. One of today’s best-known memory researchers, Elizabeth Loftus, has identified a few reasons why people forget. One of them fits our case very well — interference theory. This theory suggests that some memories compete and interfere with other memories, especially when pieces of information are similar to each other. This is often the case if we think about the information we receive while at work. All of it is related to our company, our field, and our daily problems. Due to this, our brains cannot access the specific memory because previously learned information is blocking new information or vice versa.
This and other limitations of our brains brings us back to the paradox when our knowledge increases and decreases at the same time. By knowing more, we reduce the access to our own knowledge more. This is entirely against our initial goal of becoming more involved — we actually find ourselves incapable of participating in the company’s processes because the information we had is suddenly gone.
Build an infrastructure
Minimalists see the one and only solution to this problem — sharing infrastructure. We can only stop buying so much stuff when there is another way to access the items we need. If there is no easy and cheap way to get DSLR for our trip to Greece, we will buy it and put it in the garage after the trip. However, if we could rent it for a week and even get it delivered to our doors, we would never even consider buying it. For all of this to become a reality, we need to build an infrastructure and it needs only two things to work — service providers or tools to enable us to get access to things and a critical mass of enthusiasts who would use these services instead of buying. And once people stop buying — their garages start to declutter. And this does not mean that people start to make trade-offs of some kind and find themselves lacking things. They actually kind of owns everything now as they have access to every possible item in the world at any time.
Same applies to our knowledge. With correct infrastructure, we might start knowing more with less information in our heads. We do not become lazy and we do not start to embrace apathy and ignorance — we simply learn how to access information. Knowledge sharing infrastructure can be successfully built with the same ingredients as item sharing infrastructure — people and tools. It would never succeed without the vast majority of your colleagues understanding it and trusting it. A few pioneers might be enough for starters but the mindset has to become global eventually.
I have noticed that knowledge sharing itself is a bit trickier than lending items to other people. It’s easy to get a drone from your room and carefully place it in the trunk of your friend’s car. But when it comes to our knowledge, we have to know how to effectively share not only the information itself but the full context as well. What’s making it even harder is time needed to do that. We might have been collecting information piece by piece for weeks and now trying to share it all at once during an hour-long meeting. This is where correct tooling comes. We need to build and use tools that make sharing and accessing information easier and almost effortless. Like Omni does with item sharing — they eliminate all of the struggles and effort needed to transfer items from one place to another by fully handling the delivery process. We need something like that for our knowledge.
Invest in people and dedicate
The very first thing you should do in order to build an infrastructure is to embrace high trust culture in your company. You have many smart people who can help you avoid overloading your head with information around you. And as I have discovered, many of them are more than happy to use their “garages” to keep part of the knowledge we own. So, we have to transfer bits of our knowledge to them or let them get the information in the first place and trust them as a reliable storage for it. Sometimes it is hard to get over ourselves and let other people know more about something than we do. But remember this — it is way better to know who knows than to not know.
Some of you might ask — how do we keep track of who knows what? Well, you will need to do some experimentation. You will need to find out what kind of process helps you keep everything organized best. One way to achieve that is to dedicate like we do. We have people and/or teams dedicated to specific knowledge. We try to keep at least one person as the owner of some kind of a knowledge. Let it be a business field, an internal service, a tool or even a mindset. What this gives us is the first step for the access to knowledge. If we know who owns the most of the information, we can go to that person or team and get what we need or at least further directions. This helps us to organize knowledge sharing infrastructure and improves information accessibility. You can introduce the same thing to your companies or find your own way to do that. As long as your shared knowledge is organized, there is no wrong way.
Find the right tools
If you got everything figured out to this point, you have already improved your knowledge sharing process a ton. However, there is always that next step. What we have so far is knowledge spread across the whole company and well organized. But we still need at least two people when we need to access even the tiniest bits of it. And what if the information owner is on vacation? Or worse — what if he’s leaving and a new owner is being dedicated? In some cases, our access is still limited and sharing becomes difficult again. By picking the right tools and getting them used by information owners, we can solve these issues.
Essentially, we have to pick a way to get our knowledge digitalized to some point. We need to get our knowledge to the cloud somehow. And there is no one right way to do that. It highly depends on how you share the knowledge, what are your workflows, etc. For example, if you are a software engineering company and most of the information is put to the Jira tasks, you might want to focus on improving your user stories, labeling tasks consistently and linking tasks to the Confluence pages that contain detailed documentation of relevant business requirements. You can also start a decision log and link decisions to the tasks as well. Another example, if your company shares new information via presentations and demos, you could put all of the slides and manuscripts, or recorded presentations to the Google Docs. In both examples, you should always tag owners and stakeholders next to the data items so others could clearly see who knows what.
This actually solves both of the issues we’ve found earlier. If the knowledge owner is not available, we are not stuck. We can either find a documented answer to our inquiry, or other stakeholders who are probably available. Also, in the case of knowledge owner leaving, he does not need to transfer all of his knowledge to the new owner. Mostly, he needs to introduce the structure of his documentation and teach new owner how to use it. This process could become extremely fast if every team and every individual in the company would use the same patterns when documenting. However, it should not be forced as separate teams might find unique ways to digitalize their knowledge better than other teams do. Flowchart diagrams are an excellent way to document information for developer teams. But marketing teams will most likely find them useless. So, let every team their own tools as long as they use them.
Knowledge sharing has always been an important aspect of a modern company. However, people make a mistake and try to keep as much information as possible in their heads. You do not need to know everything, you only need to know how to access information. You also need to know how to keep your knowledge easily accessible. And, the minimalistic approach might be a good way to start.