Adam Grant Interview Part 2: Author of Give and Take On How To Facilitate Sharing Knowledge in KM Communities

Carla O'Dell's picture

On February 25, 2014 Carla O’Dell, CEO of APQC and knowledge management (KM) expert, led a conversation with Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of the best-selling Give and Take (A Revolutionary Approach to Success) and APQC’s KM Advanced Working Group. The following is part two of that conversation about how alot of givers make the mistake of confusing taking with receiving. In part one of the interview Dr. Grant talked about how the right incentives drive the behavior you want in your KM Community.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor and single highest-rated teacher at The Wharton School. His consulting and speaking clients include Google, the NFL, Goldman Sachs, Merck, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamMGrant.

Dr. Carla O'Dell is CEO of APQC and considered one of the world’s leading experts in KM. 

CARLA: Adam, this evokes an analogy to the political system.  The primaries sort people based on the extremes.  The extremes rise to the top in the primaries and become the only choices that the rest of us – the matchers and the centrists – get to choose from.

AG:  I did not mean to make that connection, but I think you’re absolutely right, Carla.

CARLA:  The polarization of America worries me, Adam.  I bring it up at every turn that I possibly can.

Another question that you probably get all the time, but it’s very salient for this group: the knowledge management people that we know engage in a lot of giving behavior, even here with APQC. It’s very apparent that the “personality traits” or the “dominant behaviors” of knowledge management people are different than any of the other groups we work with.  They tend to be engaged in more giving behavior; they’re more social.  More reciprocity, a lot more matchmaking – you would expect that, right?  They self-select for that. But there is a situation in our organizations where, when there’s a fixed pie of resources and money that’s going to get doled out for the next budget year, the KM’ers, often, who are giving all the time, find out that they lose to the other programs that lobbied more effectively and act more like takers.  Any advice for winning in a fixed-pie, zero-sum scenario?

AG:  I think this is pretty challenging.  I think it’s why I ended up hedging a little bit by the time you get to chapter 7 in saying, “Look, the evidence suggests that, on balance, the people who consistently adopt a style of giving are better off and to a much greater extent than we expect, but that any style used without flexibility is dangerous.”  I think this is where we all need a secondary style that’s about matching.  If we develop our matcher muscles, so to speak, when we encounter a fixed-pie situation it’s a lot easier, then, to say, “Look, I need to make sure that there’s an even, fair exchange for what we’re contributing here.  I’m not going to share knowledge or resources unless you share it back.  I’ve got to do that to protect myself.” 

The other option is to ask what causes zero-sum fixed-pie situations to occur in the first place.  Usually they exist where either resources are constrained or where there’s limited opportunity to interact and develop some kind of history where it would be mutually beneficial to form a relationship.  To the extent that you can introduce more resources onto the table, learn more about each other’s needs, extend the interaction or the collaboration further into the future, there’s a possibility that the pie is not as fixed as it seems.

Let me give you a simple example of this.  Brook Allen is a quantitative trader who posted a want ad not long ago requesting to hire an administrative assistance with a giving personality.  Twenty two people applied for that job. He was really depressed because he wants to hire one person and help the others but he can’t give 22 people administrative assistant jobs.  So, he invites them all to interview and they all show up; 22 people arrive at the same time.  He looks around.  What is he going to do?  All of a sudden, the solution dawns on him.  He thinks he’s got a fixed pie, but he decides he’s going to find a way to expand it.  He says to the 22 people in the room, “You’re all applying for this administrative assistant job.  I said that I was looking to hire a person with a giving personality.  You all need jobs.  I want you to help each other get jobs, and then, after a couple weeks, I’ll hire the person who gives the most effectively.”  They’re all like, “What?  How are we going to do this?”  He says, “Look, yes, you’re all applying for this same job, but you have different networks, different skills sets, and you may know of a job that’s not a good fit for you but is a good fit for somebody else in the room, so let’s see what you can all accomplish if you work together.”  Within about a week or so, there is one person who has successfully gotten three jobs for other people in the group and Brook tries to hire her.  She says no because she’s found her calling; she wants to be a corporate recruiter, which she now is.  I thought it was a great story because a lot of people would look at that situation as a fixed-pie situation – that, “I only have only have one job and 21 people are going to be out of help.”  I think that oftentimes what you can do is, if you can gather a group of people and engage them to help each other, sometimes they will discover that there are more ways to expand the pie than we realize.

CARLA: I love that story, even if it really appears to be a fixed-pie. We’ve found that there is a lot of redundant effort going on in an organization. If you start communicating with others, you may find that one of you may be able to stop doing something and somebody else be the one who does it for everybody so it’s more of a shared service model.  The net effect of that is you’re freeing up resources from waste and redundancy. For example, KM might form a coalition with the Six Sigma Lean people to provide assessment services for improvement needs.

AG:  That makes a lot of sense.

CARLA:  Finally, the last question and we’ll let you go.  We all conducted the self-assessment on your book site, Adam, and of course we’re matchers, with a big givers streak in us and lament the taker part.  Anything you can help us do to reform that part, we’d be happy to do it. But let’s just assume that we are going to be givers a lot of the time.  Any other tips or tricks, in addition to the chunking and the “inspire oneself” to avoid burnout?

AG:  The easy answer to that question is either don’t surround yourself with very many takers or, if you do, start asking them to pay it forward and help other people that you’re trying to help.  The beauty of that is the ones who don’t, you can write them off a little bit more easily, or at least spend less time with them because they’re not willing to give.  The ones that actually start to pay it forward, you may be investing in changing their style a little bit and shifting them, if not in the giving direction, at least moving them more in the matching directions.

Two things I should have been clearer about in the book: one is that successful givers tend to be specialists rather than generalists.  They choose one or two ways of giving that they really love and that they excel at.  They focus on those and they don’t say yes to other requests.  What I would do is I would try to figure out what your signature way of giving is that you feel gives you a lot of energy and that you do better than most other people or that others seem to distinctly value in you.  If you focus on that, that’s another kind of chunking because you end up consolidating your giving into one or two categories.  It makes it a lot more efficient and energizing. 

If we can take Adam Rifkin as an example – his favorite form of giving is making introductions.  For the past dozen years, he’s made three introductions every day.  Dozens of companies have been started.  He’s even accidentally set up a few marriages when he’s connected people.  What’s great about that is people used to bother Adam for business plan advice because he started three companies and he knows a lot about being an entrepreneur.  Adam doesn’t like giving business plan advice.  He doesn’t want to sit down and read about your random start-ups.  He loves bringing people together.  As he starts to focus on that form of giving – the connecting – people actually stopped harassing him for business plan feedback because why would you go to the best networker in the country for business plan advice?  The most valuable thing he could offer you are his connections.  So, the general thought here is if you develop a reputation for a specific form of giving, you actually get to be more proactive in shaping what kind of giving you do and that gives you more control over the chunking.

The other thing I should have said in the book is a lot of givers make the mistake of confusing taking with receiving.  They think that if they accept help from somebody else, that they’re being a taker.  Taking is using somebody solely for personal gain, whereas receiving is saying, “Look, I need to give somebody else the chance to be a giver and then I’ll maintain a willingness to pay it back or pay it forward as the opportunity presents itself.”  Because the biggest difference between a failed and successful giver is the willingness to ask for help, I think the advice I would give for those who are worried about burnout is: get really good at asking for help and, if you’re uncomfortable with it, ask on behalf of other people.  The advocacy strategy that I wrote about seems to get most givers comfortable seeking help.

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