Being effective at knowledge transfer is a key factor for developing into a high performing team. Unfortunately, knowledge transfer is something that I see a lot of teams struggle to do well. They send an individual to a class hoping they will teach others what they learned. They rush to document what someone knows after that person gives their two weeks notice. They make statements about how we could never do without a certain person, but they do nothing to reduce that risk. The good news is there are ways that you can start winning at Knowledge Transfer.
Start With a Definition
Let’s start off with a working definition for Knowledge Transfer that puts us on the same page.
Knowledge Transfer (n): The process of moving information, context, and skills between people, teams, and organizations.
In my experience, most teams that struggle with being effective at Knowledge Transfer see knowledge as just information that needs to be referenced when necessary. Too often, however, that defaults to a “document it” mentality. What I believe is that it’s not information that saves us when things hit the fan. It’s having the context to know what to do in the given situation. That comes from experience. If we don’t have the experience, we rely on the experiences of others for help. There’s a safety net for a team when at least one person on the team has the experience. There’s also dependency and that can quickly become a bottleneck if the team has an increasing amount of work to do that relies on that experience.
It’s also hard to move experiences from one person to another or one team to another. Instead we need to allow them to have new experiences. That means creating new opportunities for people working together on real work. Not simply having theoretical discussions about concepts and potential situations. That can certainly by helpful, but it’s an ineffective solution if that’s our definition of doing Knowledge Transfer.
Get Aligned on Ownership
When I work with teams on Knowledge Transfer challenges, I start by being clear on my intent. It’s about ownership. More specifically:
My intent is to help you take ownership of your information, context, and skills and become more effective at transferring them into, out of, and within your team.
I see plenty of teams that know that they don’t know something. Unfortunately, they don’t actively work together to try to solve that for themselves. It’s like they are expecting someone else to come solve it for them. That’s definitely an ownership problem. Each team needs to understand that they own their knowledge debts. Not leadership. Not Subject Matter Experts. Not the Knowledge Transfer Fairy. Yes, I actually heard a team discuss this mythical creature. Once a team can get aligned around owning their Knowledge Transfer challenges, they can start taking actions to solve it.
Emerge Your Knowledge Goals
Now that a team has a definition of Knowledge Transfer and is aligned on who owns the problem, they can work together to emerge their Knowledge Transfer Goals. I recommend getting them in a room and conducting a session that has them answer these questions like the following:
- What are those things that we should all know how to do?
- What are those things that only one of us knows how to do?
- What are those things that none of us knows how to do?
With the questions answered, the team can them prioritize the outputs into a top 5 list of Knowledge Transfer items. Why just a top 5? Because longer lists can be overwhelming and reduce a team’s ability to take action. Think of it like how a Scrum team should behave around their Sprint Backlog. Having one item 100% done is more valuable than having all items started. If a team can actually focus and knock off even just one of their Knowledge Transfer goals, they will feel great and want to go after another one.
Keep Knowledge Transfer Opportunities Visible
With your knowledge transfer goals identified, it’s time to make sure we don’t forget them. A great way to do this is to start asking a stock question when you refine a Product Backlog Item.
Does this item have any efforts in it that align with our Knowledge Transfer goals?
If it does, I recommend that teams simply tag or label it someway to identify that it is a Knowledge Transfer Candidate. That’s not a commitment to go after the Knowledge Transfer. It is in fact Refining and the team should not be committing to what will be in their Sprint in Refining. That’s a behavior reserved for Sprint Planning. We simply want to keep the opportunity visible so when it does enter Sprint Planning the team has to make a conscious decision about Knowledge Transfer. For example, when an item with a Knowledge Transfer label is in the potential Sprint Backlog, the team can ask another stock question.
Do we have the time and energy to go after the Knowledge Transfer goal in this item?
This makes it a conscious decision. We have a goal that we said was a priority as a team. An opportunity exists right in front of all of us to achieve that goal. Are we going to go for it or not? We may still decide not to go for it, but we are now making a conscious decision as a team.
Pair on the Work
As I mentioned earlier, moving experiences from one person to another means creating opportunities for people to work together on real work. If you are familiar with XP practices, you know exactly what to do. You pair on the work. If you’re not familiar with XP, I suggest you check out a couple books:
“Really paring” on real work is a great way to do Knowledge Transfer. When is pairing not “really pairing”? When it’s just people sitting near each other having discussions about an approach (design). When it’s one person doing the work and the other just watching (shadowing). When it’s one person reviewing what another person produced (reviewing). Those things can provide value, but they don’t create the deeper real context experiences we are after.
Share Out the Experience
One of the best ways to anchor learning is to share what you learned with your team. One of the best places to do that is your team’s Retrospective. If the team decided to go after the Knowledge Transfer opportunity they pulled into their Sprint, have the people that worked together on it talk about their goal, how they worked together, what worked well, and what they would do different. When they are done, take the time to celebrate. You just crossed off one of your team’s top 5 Knowledge Transfer Goals.
Let me know if you have any comments or questions. You can reach out to me via email at FrankS@FreeStandingAgility.com
Thank you for reading.