A guide for the world of knowledge work

A fast-track to competency for you and your team

During our work at Cognician, we’ve tried out and integrated (some or all) of a bunch of different practices, models, frameworks, and so on.

In this article, I’m sharing a map of more than 70 topics and concepts. Think of this article as both a guide for making improvements in your work life, and a roadmap for this newsletter for the next little while.

Where is all of this coming from?

To give you a bit of context, our Platform team builds, maintains and operates a B2B SaaS web platform, in the domain of andragogy — learning-for-adults.

The people who shape, design and write the software (Dev), also deal with its operations (Ops) — feature releases, migrations, user support, knowledge, exceptions and outages, routine maintenance, and more.

We’ve been at this for 13 years, now!

We consistently have more to do than we have time or energy for. We are continually uncovering new information, being presented with forks in the road, and with distractions away from the current mission.

We’re also growing and changing as people, as time passes. The current people change (new skills, new goals). New people join. Sometimes, people leave.

All of this makes for a very dynamic and challenging (in a good way) work life. We’ve had to problem-solve our way through all sorts of situations, dynamics, opportunities, and crises.

Does this sound familiar? My guess is that you can see yourself in this picture, even if you’re not in the structure of B2B SaaS software, or in the domain of learning-for-adults.

Not every practice sticks, of course. Whether or not we actively apply or practice a given idea or method today, one thing we generally hold on to, is its terminology. Having nuanced but accurate language really helps our team move through complex work together, and tackle complex behavioural changes together. Oftentimes, that’s all you need!

About you, fellow adventurer

These are the assumptions I am making about you:

  • You work in a team with other people.

  • You work in ‘knowledge work’.

  • You stand to benefit substantially from at least one idea that I share today. Hopefully, many more than one!

Something I am not assuming about you: your experience level!

You could just be starting out, or you could be a decades-long veteran, or anywhere in between.

And, anyone can learn and apply everything in this map. It’s all learnable skills, rather than some sort of innate talent. I truly believe that everyone can do it!

Wait — just what is ‘knowledge work’, anyway?

I’m willing to bet you already do it, even if you’ve never heard the term before. It simply means working with information and information systems, typically supported by technology.

Anyone whose job primarily consists of reading, understanding, analysing, synthesizing, writing, drawing, planning, programming, configuring, calculating, or otherwise consuming, transforming, or producing information a.k.a. knowledge, that person is a knowledge worker.

Scientists. Architects. Writers. Product Managers. Marketers. Engineers. UX specialists. Community Managers. ChatGPT Prompt Engineers. The list is endless, and growing faster than ever.

If you’ve ever read or written a work email, you qualify. I know you can do much more than that, though!

Two important facts to remember:

  1. It’s just a big game of make-believe; it’s all in our heads.

  2. It’s a social game. We play it together with other people.

  3. Ok, ok, three facts — technology is increasingly the primary substrate for this all activity.

We need to be able to share what’s in our heads with each other skillfully, and to be perceive and understand what’s in each others’ heads clearly.

And because technology is in the middle, learning to work with that technology wisely, to maximally benefit from its advantages, and to consciously counteract its flaws, shortcomings and biases — all of that is vital.

My aims

Learning or adopting something on from this list can be a force-multiplier for your energy and attention.

I hope for two things:

  1. You learn something from me (and perhaps you want to know more).

  2. You have something I can learn from you (and perhaps you want to share it).

In the best case, you can connect the dots between something I share here and something that’s challenging in your work or team at the moment, and it helps you make some meaningful forward progress with it.

In all cases, I would love to hear about it from you. Please reach out and share your questions and comments, or indeed, any constructive criticism.

Simply hit reply, and share your feedback!

Some disclaimers

I do not claim to be an expert on any of these topics; I know just enough to add some sort of value in our team and in our context. I am simply sharing what we’ve encountered on our adventures together ❤

I’m not trying to suggest that this list is comprehensive or complete. I fully expect to learn more useful concepts to apply and integrate. Please share yours!

And lastly, remember that all models are wrong, but some are useful! And YOU are the arbiter of what’s useful. Remember, this is all language for exploring complex and dynamic systems and interactions. Apply due scepticism and rigour, but also — keep an open mind! Ultimately, YOU make your own meaning.

That applies to this article, too!

Be sure to bookmark this article’s web page, as I will be expanding it as I learn more, and, as I write on individual topics, I’ll link to those articles from here. Eventually, this will become an information hub for the world of knowledge-work.

Ok. Enough preamble! Have you refilled your cup? Let’s dive in!

A Guide for the World of Knowledge Work


Broadly speaking, all this stuff seems to fit into five rough areas:

  • What you know

    • …. about how people work, and how the ’world of work’ works.

    • … about your specific environment.

  • What you do

    • … routinely.

    • … proactively.

    • … reactively.

That first ‘people and world-of-work’ topic is a big one, chock-full of context-agnostic (and therefore dryer) information, so we’ll index it last, after working through the other four topics, which are more rooted in our lived experience.

Things you know, part one

Be situated

To be a good contributor, team member, leader, supporter, and advocate, you need to be clear on all of these topics:

  • Your team’s values, principles and agreements.

  • Your team’s practices, processes, and rituals.

  • Your team’s goals.

  • Your team’s capacities.

  • Your team’s capabilities.

  • The needs of your team members - you, your colleagues, your manager, and their manager.

Remember, you’re in the team — you are in scope for all of the above!

This is a major part of your system of work.

Things you do

Your habits — things you routinely do

You just do these things without needing to be told, because you personally get value from doing them, and because you understand the value that you bring to your team and your organisation by doing them.

  • Bond as human beings — laugh and tell stories together!

  • Communicate clearly about your own needs.

  • Sense your environment clearly.

  • Signal to your environment clearly.

  • Proactively manage expectations.

  • Investing in the people around you.

  • Advocate for the team, and for its people.

  • Working against entropy.

  • Mise en place.

  • Recognise and deal with unsuitable patterns of behaviour.

  • ‘Stay in your lane’ (respect boundaries), but support others in theirs.

  • Safety first — diligently do your bit when it comes to your team’s compliance requirements.

What other habits do you find valuable?

Your skills — things you proactively do as you work

Aside from what your LinkedIn profile says you do (marketing, programming, copywriting, product management, whatever), you:

  • SEE — Be able to rapidly build accurate situational awareness - for yourself, and everyone around you. Knowing how to:

    • Ask good questions

    • Search - find things quickly

    • Map - explore the unknown and build up a view for your team

  • THINK, and DO

    • The most important thing you can do is make a decision. It provides leverage, because it reduces uncertainty in the work. Turn a set of options into a firm path forward for everyone to follow. This is what makes you the expert.

    • The bigger the decision, the more important it is to socialise the decision and how you made it. This matters just as much when it’s in the work itself, or about ‘how the work works’.

  • SAY — We live in the information age; be able to produce and package information.

    • You can write.

    • You can ‘draw’.

    • You can speak.

When [stimulus], then [response]

These are a bit more specific and situational, and you might not relate to them directly. Whether you do or not, the pattern should be clear: know how to respond suitably in your context.

  • When responding to demand in an inbox, if someone ‘did it wrong’, offer kind guidance towards the correct method. My pet peeve: not receiving links or screenshots when being asked to fix an issue 😁

  • When a request is made of your team that you need to say no to, you know to do so, and you know how to handle the discussion.

  • When answering a FAQ, guide folks to use your team’s FAQ knowledge system.

  • When dealing with a crisis of some kind — such as a service outage in the production system you operate — fix it first, retrospect it after. Do keep good notes as you go, of course. Also, “never waste a crisis”.

What are your examples? What do you wish your team had a playbook for?

Things you know, part two

Things you understand

  • It’s about people, all the way down.

  • It’s all creative work.

  • Ignorance is the default state of being. Learning is the default mode of behaviour.

  • It’s not what happens that matters; it’s what we do about it that matters.

  • Every action is a vote for the ‘way we do things around here’.

  • Context matters; it’s not so much ‘right or wrong’ or ‘good or bad’ as it is ‘suitable or unsuitable’.

  • Balancing acts

    • Demand vs capacity.

    • Responsive vs focused.

    • Costs vs benefits.

    • ASAP vs Just in time.

What other foundational ‘facts’ or operating assumptions would you add?

Concepts, models, frameworks, methods, techniques

  • About people

    • Cognitive behaviour

      • Biases e.g. survivor bias, loss aversion

      • Fallacies e.g. sunk cost

      • Imposter syndrome

      • Introversion, extroversion

      • Neurodivergence

      • Cognitive load

      • Emotional intelligence

      • Managing attention

    • Growth Mindset

    • Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation

    • Motivation, and the self-determination theory

    • Non-violent communication

    • Psychological safety

    • Authority, Power, Influence

    • Locus of control, sphere of influence, sphere of concern

    • Roles, rather than Identities

  • About systems of work

    • Systems thinking - stocks, flows, feedback loops

    • Make the work visible

    • Queuing theory

    • Throughput accounting vs cost accounting

    • Theory of Constraints

    • Complex (alive) vs Complicated (dead)

    • Cynefin - model of complexity

    • Conway’s law

    • Team Topologies

    • Westrum’s typology of organisations

    • Double-loop learning

    • Requests, commitments, impediments, and WIP

    • Value demand, failure demand

    • Causes of waste

    • Causes of delay

    • Andon cord

    • Spine model

    • By goal vs by method

    • Adding knowledge workers also adds work

    • A bad system will beat a good person every time

    • Lead people and manage things

    • Doing the thing right vs doing the right thing

  • About the work itself

    • Appetites vs estimation

    • Making vs Mending

    • Glue work

    • Understanding value

    • Quality can’t be inspected in later

    • Incoming QA

    • Outgoing QA

Do you have more models to add to the mix? What are they?

Bonus points for sharing links to the sources you learned from!

Phew. That’s a lot of stuff!

In my Notion document for this article, almost every one of these 70+ bullet points lead to a page with notes and sources, ready to be turned into an article.

My plan is to turn each and every one of these topics into something you can use to immediately improve work life — for you, and for the human beings around you.

I’d like your help with deciding where to go next, please!

Hit reply and answer:

  • What would you like to know more about?

  • What would you add?

  • What did you learn? In what way is this useful to you?

Also — please share this article with your team. Simply forward this email!

Have a conversation about it together. Use it to understand yourselves, each other, and the work you’re doing together!

Thank you for reading, and mega-ultra-double thank you for writing back.

I wish you a great week!

In case this was forwarded to you:

Hi. I’m Robert Stuttaford.

In this Knowledge Worker's Toolkit newsletter, I introduce, explain, tell stories, share past experiences, and explore the connections and intersections of all the various systems thinking & knowledge work concepts & models I've encountered during my tenure as CTO at Cognician, over the past 13 years (and counting!)

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