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Learning from the Past

pitagorsky July17Pretty much everyone knows that it is beyond clever to learn from past performance. Unfortunately, not everyone takes the time and effort to do it.

To paraphrase an often repeated warning, if you don’t learn from the past you are likely to repeat it.

Now that’s not bad if past performance has been error free, cost effective and has resulted in optimal outcomes. Though reality seems to be that without learning we are more likely to repeat poor performance than we are to repeat optimal performance.

Humans are learning machines. As individuals we soak up knowledge from the time we are infants. We try to walk, fall down, getup and keep at it until we get the hang of it. The same thing happens when we learn to ride a bike or swim. 

We learn communication and relationship skills, learning skills and other complex skills through trial and error and emulation. 

We can learn to do things well and we can learn to do things badly. The more conscious the learning process, the more likely the outcome will be positive. If each experience is see as a learning experience and there is clarity about what the objective is, then there will be continuous improvement.

If the objective is optimal performance, then each learning event will support that. If the objective is to gather up a certain number of credits or fulfill a regulatory requirement, then that objective may be met without achieving any performance improvement.

The Problem and Its Causes

The learning process continues beyond early childhood, though with increasing difficulty, as we grow older. We take on bad habits like getting angry at ourselves for not getting something right the first time or like being too embarrassed to admit failure. We learn to be afraid that we will be ridiculed or punished. We learn to blame others for anything that looks like failure or error.

In the realm of projects and business processes, we are faced with the challenge of learning from the past not only as individuals but also collectively as teams or organizations. Individual resistance to learning is reinforced by organizational policies, time binds, poor leadership and inadequate management practices. The result is organizational learning disability.

Not learning from past performance is costly on multiple levels. Errors are repeated. Best practices are not carried forward into future projects. Valuable players are demoralized and leave, or worse, stay and stop caring. The organization that does not learn does not grow. Its costs increase and its ability to perform decreases. 

The Possibilities

Address the causes of learning disabilities to create a learning organization.

“Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” (Senge The Fifth Discipline, 1990: p. 3)

Learning organizations continuously improve their performance. They realize that if you want to improve performance you must understand and improve your process. They know that improvement requires the persistent investment of time and effort and a willingness to break through the barriers that make candid critical analysis difficult.

The Solution

The solution is obvious and well documented. Be willing to step back and honestly and openly assess your performance. Be accountable. Make your process transparent. The standard approach is to:

  1. Establish goals, objectives, success measures, baseline and approach
  2. Overcome the cultural obstacles to learning – blaming, fear, etc.
  3. Review performance, document successes and failures.
  4. Analyze their causes.
  5. Determine what to do about the causes.
  6. Do it.
  7. Measure the results.
  8. Continue.

Step 1 supports the idea that to have clarity about what is to be accomplished, how, and a way to determine if it was enhances the ability to achieve desired results. It supports the need for objectivity.

The most difficult step is step 2. While many organizations attribute the absence of an ongoing learning and performance improvement process to lack of time, the real cause is lack of resolve. Organizations do not perform learning activities such as post project reviews because people are afraid of what might happen when poor performance and negative events are identified and discussed. They are afraid that people will become defensive. They fear that even if the review isn’t a blame-fest nothing will change anyway, so why waste the time.

Ideally, it is up to senior management to clear the way for organizational learning and insist upon post project reviews and regular operational performance reviews. But, in the absence of that it is quite possible to take it upon yourselves as teams or project managers to work within your scope of control to learn from you successes and failures to improve your process.

Going Beyond the Blame Game

To make learning happen it is necessary to go beyond the all too common blame game and to own up to the fact that no one is perfect. Covering up poor performance is guaranteed to perpetuate it.

How do you go beyond these habitual responses? 

Open up dialogue. Discuss process perspective and process management. To have everyone understand that everything has a cause and the cause is embedded in the process. While sometimes the cause is poor personal performance, much more often the cause is systemic – organizational policies, poor training, lack of process review and learning, flawed tools and procedures, etc. Knowing that allows the focus to be at meaningful targets. There is hope that improvement can occur.

Talk about the tendency to avoid directly confronting your own faults and the faults of others. Get everyone to realize that this kind of avoidance is a principle cause of the repetition of poor performance.

Calculate the cost of poor performance. Build a history of projects that have been performed and the cost of errors, omissions, poor quality products, unhealthy relationships that have occurred in them. Identify those that have occurred repeatedly.

At the beginning, hold closed reviews in which only members of the performance group attend. Gradually, include other stakeholders as needed.

Assess client, user, sponsor and performer satisfaction and address dissatisfaction while acknowledging positive performance. Keep in mind that you don’t do the work for its own sake, you do it to satisfy organizational and personal goals.

Let the Light Come in

Leonard Cohen says, 
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 

The “crack” is the flaw or error that you have made. It is an opening that allows in the light that can illuminate opportunities for improvement.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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