A while back, one of our clients, a global provider of automation and information solutions, learned that one of their key employees was giving his 30-day notice. This employee – I’ll call him Luis – was a chief software architect. Luis held the vision for one of the company’s core software products in his head, with about 5 years of thinking behind him and 5 years of vision in front of him.
Luis had gotten an offer with another company that he couldn’t pass up, but he had great affection for the team he was leaving and didn’t want to burn any bridges. He was eager to leave everything as organized as possible for his colleagues, but he didn’t have much time.
My knowledge transfer team got the call on a Thursday and by Monday morning we held a kickoff meeting that included Luis, the three employees who would be carrying his work forward, their manager, and a consultant from my firm. Here’s what we did.
We started the Emergency Knowledge Transfer process by assessing Luis’ unique knowledge, and then built a basic matrix to reflect that. Then, given the urgency of the situation, we had the team analyze how many available hours Luis had left.
Luis had given 30-days notice, which sounds like lots of time, right? Well, after subtracting his remaining vacation days, the hours he needed to complete a priority project, and travel time between his company’s global offices, he only had 41 available hours to transfer knowledge.
We wasted no time in putting together a Skill Development Plans (SDP), which outlined the skills and knowledge that Luis’ successors (whom we refer to as apprentices) needed learn – breaking down his tacit knowledge and experience into individual skills and tasks that can be taught in an hour each.
By the end of the day on Tuesday (less than 48 hours after we’d met Luis), we had captured all the priority areas when Luis unique knowledge around the product architecture.
Our next move was to look at Luis’ three apprentices and to customize the SDP so that it showed skill-by-skill who would learn what. We also helped Luis’ manager prioritize, because while we had identified 70 skills that needed to be taught, Luis only 41 hours left – so we identified the ones that posed the greatest risk to the company and focused on those.
The next step was to have Luis and his apprentices practice the process. With our team facilitating, we had Luis teach on of the skills on the SDP with all three apprentices present. As part of the teaching process, Luis provided answers to a series of test questions that pertained to each skill, such as:
- What are the steps in the process and why is each is important?
- What are the top 3 things that go wrong when someone is learning this skill?
- How do you troubleshoot the three most common problems?
The apprentices were then each asked to answer the test questions with Luis listening to ensure their responses were accurate, demonstrating that they had absorbed the critical knowledge needed. They all passed the test, which showed them in real-time that the process works. This practice session was critical to make sure the team understood and didn’t skip any steps.
Once we had proof that Luis and his apprentices knew how to correctly apply the EKT process, the manager set up a schedule for the remaining 41 hours. Due to the time limitations, it was decided that some of the skills would be taught face-to-face and some over the phone.
Then, they mapped out the 41 hours. Given the urgency, Luis’ manager took on the role of clock watcher. He only allowed Luis and his apprentices to spend 60 minutes on each line in the plan so that they would get to all 41 lines that they had prioritized. The manager said these guys would’ve spent all day on every line in the plan if they had been allowed them to. Of course, that wasn’t going to be the best or most efficient use of the available time.
As time went on, Luis and his apprentices became more adept at using their hours. They used my firm’s 5-Minute Meeting Plan as a tool to set the agenda for every hour. That plan became foundational documentation for future reference, because its simple structure allowed them to document what they were learning while Luis was talking.
By the end of the process, Luis and his apprentices managed to cover all 41 skills and he felt good that he had done everything humanly possible to prepare his colleagues to take over. His manager was also happy. With a clear process and schedule, they had used their time the highest advantage. There were still gaps of course, but the team knew what they were. The manager said to me:
“Okay, of course, we didn’t transfer all the knowledge, but two things are true: we know what we did cover, and we know we covered the most important stuff.”
And in times of rapid change, that’s a big deal.