When it comes to organizing things, my partner Gene is a “lumper” and I am a “splitter.” You can tell by the organization of our computer files. I have organized my files into nested folders so that I can find what I need by navigating down a tree. Gene puts everything into just a few folders with lots of files in them, and then searches for what he needs. His approach would drive me nuts when I was looking for a file, and mine would drive him nuts when he was saving a new file. We didn’t bother each other about our different styles until we added our third employee. What level of granularity is right now that we have other people to consider?
Knowledge Gaps can also have different levels of granularity, depending on the functional area or technical discipline, the organization’s established norms and individual preferences. Some Knowledge Gaps, especially those in early development, are just naturally big and fuzzy. Even when they come into focus, they ask broader questions that are not easily broken down. Others naturally decompose into sharp, focused Knowledge Gaps. For both types, it helps to remember that the idea is the unit of knowledge.
The Idea is the Unit of Knowledge
The single, focused idea is the unit of extensible knowledge. It is easier to reuse a single idea than it is to reuse a complex system. The idea will be more broadly applicable, easier to evolve, and easier to embed in standardized knowledge, such as checklists and design guides. It will be easier to combine the idea with others in unexpected ways to create things that are truly innovative.
Some types of reusable knowledge, like platform designs, will have more than one idea. But even the most complex systems of reusable knowledge will benefit from an understanding of the single focused ideas that underlie them, and an attempt to make those ideas reusable on their own. Just as small, decoupled modules are easier to build into systems, small, decoupled ideas are easier to incorporate into innovations.
Single, Focused Ideas are Easier to Capture
It is much easier to write — and read — about one focused idea than to dive into a lengthy briefing. Some platform documentation can run to hundreds of pages, meaningful only to the people who wrote it, because it is so complex that others can’t decipher it. Some technical briefs never get finished because the authors have difficulty finding the time to work on something that big — and reviewers don’t have the time to make comments on the drafts. We have to integrate knowledge capture into our work, and that’s much easier if the knowledge we capture is focused on one idea.
One single-sided A3 or tabloid sized paper (or the digital equivalent) is an appropriate scale for documentation because it forces the writer to communicate one focused idea. There is simply not room on the page for anything extra. The writer can create a first draft in a single session. A reader can get through it quickly, making use of bits of time that free up during the day, rather than having to find time for a long reading session.
This is why our templates for Key Decision and Knowledge Gap reports are only one slide, and we advise allowing no more than two additional slides. More slides = more ideas = less crispness and reusability.
Single, Focused Ideas are Easier to Reuse
It is also much easier to ensure that single, focused ideas meet all of the critera to be reusable knowledge:
• Understood: Since it’s much easier to read focused documents, it’s also much easier to understand them.
• Believed: If a developer focuses a Knowledge Gap report around a single idea, there is plenty of space to include the references, links, experimental methods and visual models that will support the reader’s ability to believe that the ideas within the report are credible. There won’t be room for all of the experimental data, but most people don’t need the data itself on the report — they just need to know that they can get to it. The experimental or analytical methods and the interpretation of the data is much more important to most readers as a guide to assess the credibility of the knowledge. The people who need to see the data for themselves know where to find it.
• Generalized: It is easier to generalize a single, focused idea that someone develops in the course of designing a product than it is to make the product design itself reusable. For example, it is easier to capture what a team learns about the user’s interactions with the product than it is to develop a reusable user interface platform. The platform will have limitations but the customer knowledge will be reusable in many more applications. The marketing staff may find it helpful, or the test engineers might use it. Other product teams may be able to avoid some of the issues you saw, even if the user interface itself does not apply.
From a technical perspective, what you learn about the fundamental physics, chemistry or biology of your products is usually much more leverageable across a broader range of products then the product designs themselves. Knowledge about the fundamental science behind our products gives us a greater ability to predict how changes to the design will change the performance of the products. This is why trade-offs and limit curves are so powerful. They capture what we know about the fundamental relationships that exist in our products wherever they apply, not just within a specific design.
• Actionable: It’s much easier to figure out whether and how to apply one focused idea in a new way. The reader can see how the idea needs to be adapted to meet the current need.
• Accessible: It’s much easier to share a single, focused idea than it is to share something bigger. I can hang a Knowledge Gap report on my cubicle wall. I can send it in an email, and know that I’m not imposing too much of a burden on the recipient. I can carry it with me to a meeting, and I can quickly share with someone else in a short 1:1 meeting no longer than a coffee break.
Single, Focused Ideas Close Knowledge Gaps
Large, fuzzy Knowledge Gaps can be hard to close because it’s not easy to tell what “closed” looks like. Teams can get stuck swirling around an answer that seems to shift around a lot, and it’s not always clear how the team’s learning activities contribute toward closing the Knowledge Gap. It’s not as easy to draw a straight line from the Knowledge Gap to the final recommendation. It’s too easy to get stuck in Build-Test-Fix loops rather than taking a step back to design some experiments that will build understanding.
That’s why we encourage teams to break down their Knowledge Gaps into smaller pieces, even if the Knowledge Gap seems like a big, fuzzy question that can’t be broken down. By asking questions about scope boundaries, inherent trade-offs and prior knowledge, teams can find the gaps between the current state and the knowledge the team needs to support a good Key Decision.
How to Split Big, Fuzzy Knowledge Gaps Down Into Smaller Questions
If you have a complex Knowledge Gap that’s big and fuzzy, you can continue to treat it as one Knowledge Gap at first. Eventually, you’ll want to try to figure out if there is more to this Knowledge Gap that can be broken down into smaller, more focused questions.
❏ Spend one learning cycle to scope out the boundaries of the question and establish the facts: what’s in, what’s out? What are the inherent trade-offs embedded in the question? What do we already know?
❏ Analyze the gaps between the current state of the knowledge and the answer to the question we need to support our underlying Key Decision, to find the focused Knowledge Gaps underneath it.
❏ Make sure that the final reports capture single, focused ideas.
If you’ve followed these steps, then it doesn’t matter so much whether you organize them under a “parent” Knowledge Gap, or just add them to the list of Knowledge Gaps for the related Key Decision. Chances are, you’ll find that some work best lumped together, and others work best when they’re split up — and that Knowledge Gap owners have their own preferences, too.
Our shared files system is still evolving. We have lumped some things together into baskets that are too big, and we have split up others so much that it takes too many clicks to get to them. Our experience shows that files and folders, like reports, work best when they’re centered on one focused idea.