The Benefits Of Regularly Looking Backwards And Forwards

I’ve written previously on the powerful impact of carrying out (honest) reviews (for both projects and individual work). I came across an interesting variation on this theme that works for organisations and is called the Snippets system (from the free e-book here):

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple solution that persists to this day at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. In this system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it. Some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.

The routine process encourages employees to reflect and jot down a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

It sounds very attractive but I’m curious how it actually works in practice – how honest is everyone, how scalable is it really, how easy is it to spot unexpected connections in a mass of information? However I can imagine that if you can get such a system working well (as I’m sure you can) it would be incredibly powerful.

It reminded me a bit of a more standard system that I’d come across earlier that also incorporated the personal touch (the latter part wouldn’t scale easily but has advantages in it’s own right).

When I left academia in the late 80’s, I had a position at the UK IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester (specialising in research in data visualisation). Looking back now, I was terribly inexperienced with anything to do with business, so the ideas of professional management practices and business development and so on were quite alien to me. As a consequence I had to learn a lot in a short time.

One aspect that fascinated me was the way they did monthly group progress meetings. Every month everyone would briefly write down and circulate their key achievements and plans for the future as well as raise any issues that others could potentially help with. In addition, in the actual meeting everyone summarised their main points in 5 minutes or less. All staff were treated on the same footing so no one got more time than any other. Waffling on was cleverly regulated by the manager starting to look around the room and feigning a total lack of interest – it’s amazing how powerful that simple ploy can be!

These meetings were incredibly useful – it was good to have to think back on what I’d actually done in the last month, what was a problem and my initial ideas for the next month. It also meant that, as we were all working in different areas, we had to explain what we were doing (although technically very advanced) in a relatively simple and jargon-free manner (a very useful skill). The manager would then decide what were the highlights for that month (just one or two of the maybe 50 items discussed) and then summarise the rest.

The summary, just one or two pages, then got circulated around to the other groups. Quite often links and connections were discovered in these meetings that we’d not been aware of even though informal ‘water cooler’ conversations were an integral part of the way we worked.

It was a simple idea but very effective in practice and similar in spirit to the Snippets idea above. In a modern context, we were doing proactive ‘knowledge management’ through ‘creative conversations and smart summaries’. The clever part was managing the overall process without using a heavy hand, thereby encouraging honesty and fruitful participation.

It might seem that this idea is rather trivial and commonplace but that’s not my experience. After leaving IBM I worked for a number of research agencies and, although they did similar things, none approached the usefulness and directness of the IBM approach described above. I always had the feeling that in these organisations such meetings were activities you ‘had’ to do (and were essentially bureaucratic in nature) rather than something creative, motivating and useful. So just how you do it (preferably very brief and to the point, and stressing connections) is extremely important.

Maybe some of these knowledge sharing ideas can profitably be used in your organisation?



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