Speed Consulting

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you combined speed dating and knowledge-sharing? I can’t own up to any firsthand experience of the former, but I’m told by friends who do, that you participate in a merry-go-round of three-minute exchanges on a room full of tables-for-two.  When the bell rings you move around to the next person.  If you like what you’re experienced, you make a note on your score-card, and, if the feeling was mutual, you take the next steps together. Tremendously efficient and less emotionally risky than the traditional approach - at least for most people! speed dating

To save a praying mantis experience, there are websites full of interesting questions that you might ask during your 3 minutes – for example:  “What luxury item would you take on a desert island?” and “What are your favourite words and why?”. Incidentally, “knowledge management” is not a good answer to the second question. So if speed-dating is designed to reduce the emotional investment, embarrassment and risk of failure  of finding a potential partner – what can we learn from that room-full of tables which we could apply in a KM context?

In my work with communities of practice and networks over the years, I have observed that when someone asks a question in a network, people are sometimes reluctant to offer up suggestions and ideas because they don’t have a complete answer or a polished response.  The longer the silence lasts, the more risky it feels to contribute.  People hold back, worried that they might be the only one to respond and that their idea will be perceived as being too trivial or too obvious – how embarrassing! If your community feels like this, and you have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, then let me recommend a simple “Speed Consulting” exercise which can help groups to break these bad habits.  (I’m indebted to my friend and consulting colleague Elizabeth Lank for introducing me to this technique).

A quick guide to speed consulting.

Identify some business issue owners In advance, identify a number of people (around 10% of the total) with a business challenge which they would like help with – they are to play the role of the client who will be visited by a team of brilliant management consultants. Business issues should not be highly complex; ideally, each issue could be described in 3 minutes or less.  Brief the issue owners privately coach on their body language, active listening, acknowledgement of input etc.  Remind them that if they are seen to have stopped taking notes (even when a suggestion has been noted before); they may stem the flow of ideas.

Arrange the room You need multiple small consultant teams working in parallel, close enough to generate a “buzz” from the room to keep the overall energy high. Round tables or chair circles work well.  Sit one issue owner at each table. Everybody else at the table plays the role of a consultant. The issue owner will remain at the table throughout the exercise, whilst the groups of “visiting consultants” move around.

Set the context Explain to the room that each table has a business issue, and a team of consultants.  The consultants have a tremendous amount to offer collectively – from their experience and knowledge - but that they need to do it very quickly because they are paid by the minute! They have 15 minutes with each client before a bell sounds, and they move on to their next assignment. The time pressure is designed to prevent any one person monopolising the time with detailed explanation of a particular technique.  Instead, they should refer the issue owner to somewhere (or someone) where they can get further information.  Short inputs make it easier for less confident contributors to participate.

Start the first round Reiterate that you will keep rigidly to time, and that the consultants should work fast to ensure that everyone has shared everything that they have to offer. After 15 minutes, sound the bell and synchronise the movement to avoid a “consultant pile-up”.

Repeat the process Issue owners need to behave as though this is the first group and not respond with ‘the other group thought of that!’. They may need to conceal their notes. Check the energy levels at the tables after 45 minutes.  More than three rounds can be tiring for the issue owners, but if the motivation is particularly high, you might manage 4 rotations.

Ask for feedback and reflection on the process Emphasise that the issue owners are not being asked to “judge” the quality of the consultants!  Invariably, someone will say that they were surprised at the breadth of ideas, and that they received valuable input from unexpected places. Ask members of the “consulting teams” to do the same. Often they will voice their surprise at how sharing an incomplete idea or a contact was well received, and how they found it easy to build on the ideas of others.

Transfer these behaviours into community life Challenge them to offer up partial solutions, ideas and suggestions when a business issue arises in a community.  Having established the habit face-to-face, it should be far easier to continue in a virtual environment.   The immediacy and brevity of social media helps here – perhaps the 140 character limit in Twitter empowers people to contribute?

So perhaps I should have just tweeted: @ikmagazine http://bit.ly/speed_consulting boosts sharing in communities #KM @elank and waited to see what my followers would respond with! To be published in the next edition of Inside Knowledge.