Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 50;   December 9, 2020: Anticipating Absence: How

Anticipating Absence: How


Knowledge workers are professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the pandemic, we consider substituting someone else. But substitutes need much more than skills and experience to succeed.
A plastic owl, used as a deterrent of unwanted birds and rodents

A plastic owl, used as a deterrent of unwanted birds and rodents. This device has many of the external attributes of a real owl. But it isn't an owl. So it is with people who are qualified to substitute for pandemic-stricken knowledge workers. They probably would carry on nicely if they had been doing the job before they were called upon. That is, they have the external attributes necessary for the work. But they lack knowledge of the context, and therefore they need to acquire that knowledge before they can perform with the necessary effectiveness.

Illness of a member (or several members) of a knowledge-work team isn't the only cause of pandemic-induced absences. Quarantines and hospitalizations or deaths of family members of team members can have similar effects. Indeed, the emotional consequences of loss or severe illness of loved ones can be as disruptive as illness itself. We must anticipate absences if we are to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the efforts of teams of knowledge workers.

Here's a description of a simple but effective mitigation strategy:

Define as part of the work of the organization a new element we might call capturing knowledge about what we do. Capturing knowledge about what we do is an ongoing effort to capture detailed knowledge about what team members have done already, what they're doing now, and what they intend for the near future.

The goal is to capture knowledge about (a) where we've been; (b) where we are now; and (c) where we intend going. I'll call this knowledge meta-knowledge — knowledge about the knowledge work.

To capture meta-knowledge, I don't mean to suggest that we write documents, though committing some of the captured meta-knowledge to writing might be part of the process. The objective is to ensure that multiple people have a clear understanding of how we got to where we are, what's happening now, and where we're going next. If we can achieve that, then the absence of one team member — or, in a larger effort several team members — won't be cause to halt the effort. We'll be able to assign an absent person's work to another capable person, who will then be able to carry on.

Executing this strategy has costs. We'll spend differently some of the time we formerly spent "doing real work." We'll re-allocate that effort to capturing meta-knowledge about that "real work." In effect, we'll define as real work the entire meta-knowledge capture process.

Tactics for mitigating the effects of pandemic-induced absences

Below are seven suggested techniques for capturing meta-knowledge.

Stretch out schedules deliberately
Reset expectations about how much time is required to complete a given piece of work. Even if we decide not to deploy a meta-knowledge capture strategy, the pandemic will likely so hamper us that schedules will inevitably slip.
We don't have a We must anticipate absences if we are to
mitigate the effects of the pandemic on
the efforts of teams of knowledge workers
choice about whether we stretch out our schedules — they will be stretched. The only question is how. Either we stretch schedules in a deliberate, planned way using a meta-knowledge capture strategy, or the pandemic will stretch our schedules for us, chaotically.
Allocate work to people in pairs
Pairing knowledge workers increases the probability that meta-knowledge remains available to the team even if one member of a pair becomes unavailable.
One way of working in pairs involves designating one partner of the pair as lead and the other as meta-knowledge-capturer. The lead is the person most responsible for a given piece of work. The other partner, the meta-knowledge-capturer, is the person most responsible for capturing the meta-knowledge. In a healthy partnership, both partners do both kinds of work, though with differing emphasis. And the meta-knowledge-capturer in one pair might be the lead in another.
Keep records of more conversations
In more typical conditions, most conversations in knowledge-oriented organizations are undocumented and unrecorded. The need to keep records isn't intense enough to justify the effort of capturing conversation content. But in this pandemic, when we might lose access to anyone at any time, documenting or recording certain selected conversations could be advantageous.
Documenting or recording everything that anyone says or writes is neither necessary nor beneficial. But summaries can be useful and justifiable. Start taking meeting minutes if you haven't been; make meeting minutes more complete if you have.
Adopt a reporter's approach to meeting minutes
In organizations that keep minutes of meetings, a common approach involves noting decisions only, without attempting to note alternatives that weren't adopted or the reasons why alternatives weren't adopted. To mitigate risks associated with pandemic-induced absences, this practice needs adjustment.
A reporter's approach to meeting minutes would entail capturing information explaining not only what the meeting participants decided, but also why they decided what they did decide. Meeting minutes are more valuable to replacement knowledge workers when they include the arguments in favor of or against alternatives to the decisions that were ultimately adopted. This information can reduce the chance of committing errors that would not have occurred outside the context of pandemic-induced absences.
Identify technical debt
Some of what knowledge workers produce is known to be technical debt at the time it is produced. This material includes what people create "for now" so that they can move forward on the immediate object of their attention. In more typical times, when they complete that task, they return to the for-now material and clean it up, if schedules permit.
But in the pandemic environment, the people who can identify or address the for-now material might not be available at the time when the team would normally have turned its attention to addressing the for-now material. That's why clearly identifying for-now material is so important in the pandemic environment. Keep written records of this material in a central log.
Maintain artifact catalogs
The artifacts of a knowledge project are all the deliverables, plans, notes, documents, and message traffic produced during the execution of the project. At any given time, deliverables might or might not be in finished form. Also included are experiments, which are assets used to research open questions, and draft versions or prototypes of any of the other artifacts.
People who take the places of team members who have fallen ill or who have been called away need to know what artifacts exist and how to find them. An artifact catalog provides this information. It need not be elaborate. A brief description of each artifact and where to find it is sufficient.
Keep information about failures
In more typical conditions, before the pandemic, when we tried an approach that didn't work out as expected, we moved on. We remembered what didn't work, and (usually) we didn't make the same mistake twice. But in the context of pandemic-induced absences, the people who remember mistakes might not be available.
Documents that describe what didn't work can be valuable to the people who must carry on in place of those now absent. These documents need not provide much detail. They need supply only enough detail to serve as reminders to those who remain in action. If we understand why the failure occurred, documenting that can also be helpful.

Last words

A trap awaits organizations choosing to deploy this strategy. We might call it the "trap of the misidentified audience." The audience we need to serve is a skilled and experienced individual who has access to some — but not all — members of the knowledge work team. The audience is not a visitor from another planet who must figure out absolutely everything using the captured meta-knowledge alone.

When we misidentify the audience as a visitor from another planet, we tend to document everything needed to carry out the intended work of the project. That task would be enormous, and it would inevitably include far more information than is necessary. The actual audience for the captured meta-knowledge needs only a set of hints and reminders that enable the team as a group to get back on course and stay on course for the remainder of the effort. For this purpose sketchiness is next to godliness.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Flattery and Its Perils  Next Issue

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