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 workerschoice 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.
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 Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management:
- Project Improvisation Fundamentals
- Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when
it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's
Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Avoid Having to Reframe Failure
- Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition.
But how can we get something good out of it?
- Depth First or Breadth First?
- When investigating candidate solutions to a problem, we tend to focus first on what we believe is the
"best bet." But a more systematic approach can sometimes yield dramatic advantages by reducing
the cost of the investigation and the time it requires.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info