October 15, 2012

My Mad Libs Love Affair

Mad Libs serves as an excellent intervention for organizations struggling with where to start in their knowledge-sharing efforts…and why.

By: Anne Goggins Gregory

With two young children, I have rediscovered that a good fill-in-the-blanks Mad Libs challenge not only entertains but also passes time on car trips. Moreover – and relevant for this post – I recently renewed my love affair with the game in a professional context. I see its value as I lead Bridgespan’s internal knowledge efforts and consult with Bridgespan clients on their knowledge-sharing approaches. Indeed, Mad Libs serves as an excellent intervention for organizations struggling with where to start…and why.*

Think about knowledge challenges in your organization, places where wheel reinventing is rampant or where lack of information – or information overload – makes it challenging to do your best work. When I ask clients to talk about these issues, the list is long and extremely diverse. "We need to know what’s working in our program to make timely adjustments." "Every site uses a different student-intake process with different forms." One client, in utter frustration, said simply: "We are data rich and insight poor."

As real as these challenges may be, they lack clarity on two dimensions: who feels this pain most acutely (and therefore would benefit most from a solution) and why is it so hard to find a solution?

What if you had to fill in this sentence? "This_[person or group of people]_ needs _[what info]_ in a world where _[this specific challenge exists]_."*

Would it read like this? "A site coordinator needs to find the best practices in enrichment activities in a world where these practices are happening across multiple sites without a way to look across them." With this challenge in mind, an organization might start including an agenda item, on monthly site director calls, specifically focused on what’s working in enrichment; on these calls, directors could choose an even more specific challenge (e.g. "if I only have 45 minutes in each program day, what are quick-burst things I can do that work?"). Over time, the organization might seek to embed these practices into their codified model and get them up on an intranet, but they’d need to start by sharing what they were seeing across the sites.

By contrast, consider this knowledge-sharing challenge: "A grant writer needs to find past grant applications, segmented by type of grant in a world where the organization has strengthened its communications standards and funders are requiring similar information across applications." Here the solution might be relatively simple, as it was for one organization I worked with, though it still required intentionality and coordination. The small development team came together to agree on how they would use their share drive more effectively. They agreed to standardize folder and document names and, perhaps more importantly, they committed to using their shared space as the place to do their work.

What if your colleagues had to do their own version of Mad Libs? Would you agree on the most important knowledge challenges and could you then prioritize knowledge investments to address them?  Would you agree on where to start? 

 (Ann Goggins Gregory is a senior director at The Bridgespan Group and leads internal knowledge.)

* Huge thanks to the Stanford Design School, with whom Bridgespan worked in 2011 and without whom I would not have reinvigorated my Mad Libs affection. Click here for more on how the d.school uses this approach and where it fits into its fuller design process.

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