Imagine you work at a startup where you’ve been in charge of knowledge management and internal communications for the past three years. In the first year, you created processes that got everything running smoothly. In the second year, you implemented a new knowledge base tool.
But this past year has been different, and you can’t quite figure out why. You’ve chalked it up to “growing pains” because your company has been on a hiring spree, but you are having trouble pinpointing the actual problem. Everything just seems wrong. People don’t seem to trust the KB tool or the knowledge you’ve put in it. Everyone seems upset with each other. You’re going through the motions of your job, but also spending more time than you should be checking out other employment options.
Admit it: You’re grieving.
OK, so the story wasn’t exactly Hamlet, but it is still tragic. Our hero is experiencing grief, which feels weird to say about a workplace situation. We most often associate grief with losing a loved one or ending a relationship, but grief can also manifest when you work hard at something and it doesn’t work out.
We've been there
Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously described grief in five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. This blog post will help you determine where you might fall in that grieving process, and give you tips to keep the healing process going. At the end, I’ll also touch on a newer sixth stage of the grieving process, and how it applies here.
Take a deep breath, turn off your Slack notifications, and get ready to do a little self-reflection.
Stage 1: Denial
Part of you knows that your team has a knowledge problem, but you’re ignoring that part of you. In fact, you’re ignoring the knowledge base altogether. You pretend like it’s not a problem that needs to be fixed, and instead view spending the time looking for knowledge as a “waste of time.”
Knowledge, in your view, needs to be in peoples’ heads, and therefore if they have to resort to entering the Kafkaesque labyrinth that is your knowledge base, they have failed. The terrible experience of finding the bit of knowledge that you need will surely teach you to memorize this so that you don’t need to go through that next time.
How to heal
This one requires a mindset shift. While your team may be made up of individuals with unique personalities and brains, you have a real opportunity to create a record of your team’s collective knowledge (not quite a “hive mind”, but close), and maybe that’s a good thing! Perhaps the knowledge base shouldn’t be the last place your team checks, but rather the first, so that they always have the most accurate, up-to-date knowledge.
Try not to reach Dennis-levels of rage
Stage 2: Anger
In an all-company meeting, another team announces the progress they’ve made on a project they’ve been working on. The only problem is that this project directly conflicts with a project your team just started. You’re furious! How could this have happened?
How to heal
In some cases, the anger that comes from a not-so-great knowledge base can be fixed with a solid internal communications strategy. If you have a team of people digging through your Minotaur maze of a knowledge base, and pushing the most important knowledge to those who need to know it, you can go on letting the dumpster fire grow for a while longer. That is, until you reach...
Stage 3: Bargaining
You’re looking for anything that can make this knowledge problem hurt less, so you seek tradeoffs in every scenario. Often you find yourself working in hypotheticals: If only my manager would give me more time, I would update the documents. If the product team would just make me aware of their updates, I can keep the rest of the team in line. Sadly, you often find that these bargains are not possible.
How to heal
Focus less on what others need to do for you, and think more about what value you can provide to others. Stop telling yourself the story that you don’t have the time to fix the problem. You have the time; you just need to prioritize it.
...We've also been there
Stage 4: Depression
This doesn’t refer to the medical condition, but rather a feeling of resignation and withdrawal. You feel like all the work you have done to this point has been for nothing. Will any work you take in making improvements be worth it?
How to heal
This is the hardest one to heal from. You need to sit with this one and process it. Only that will lead you to the next (and final) stage).
Stage 5: Acceptance
You come to find that your knowledge base is not salvageable as it is today, and that’s okay. It’s time to accept that and start over. So you get Guru. Or, if you already have Guru, you slash and burn the Cards that aren’t doing you any good. Maybe you consider starting a new knowledge program altogether in addition to your new knowledge base, like KCS.
We see you over there calmly accepting reality, and we applaud you
Bonus Stage: Finding Meaning
This stage has been added to later versions of Kübler-Ross’s work, so it might not be as familiar to many people, but it’s very valuable here! Before you go and burn down your knowledge base to pave the way for a new one, take a moment to write down the lessons you have learned from how you were doing this before.
If there isn’t even a good lesson to learn here, at least consider how you got to the train wreck you’re working your way out of so that you can try to avoid those steps next time. Either way, you’ll get something positive out of a painful experience.