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The Power -- for Better or Worse -- of Lessons Learned by Marilyn Darling

This is the age of fast forward. Yesterday is irrelevant. Long live tomorrow! But there is an irony in this mad rush into the future. The lessons we learn from the past determine whether we can grab on to the opportunities of the future. Your company's ability to succeed in a transforming marketplace is only as good as your business units' ability to learn well from the past. Let us demonstrate.

Rate your company. On a scale from your average domestic cat on one end to your well-educated and experienced manager on the other, how well do your business units and the teams and work groups within them learn from their experience?

To calibrate, let us take the cat first. After jumping onto a hot stove for the first time, will the cat:
a. Reflect on what it was trying to accomplish (to find food) and seek an alternative method?
b. Learn to jump on the counter first and sniff the stove before crossing it?
c. Learn never again to jump on a counter for fear of getting burned?
d. Learn never again to go into the kitchen, forcing you to move the cat bowl into the dining room?

Thankfully, adult human beings have the blessing of an analytical brain and a history of solving problems that allows us to learn a bit more effectively than the typical cat. Your average human being may hold on to a few "never again's," but in most areas, we will eventually overcome early failures and misconceptions. Having once been burned by a hot stove, we will still eventually learn to cook.

Before you start to well up with evolutionary pride, however, let us now consider how well we learn when we get together in business units and work groups. Consider a hypothetical R&D team designing a new laser printer. The team invites a VP in to look at its prototype, hoping to gain his sponsorship at budget time. The VP takes exception to some trivial aspect of the design. The meeting doesn't go well. He raises all sorts of heck with his peers about what R&D is doing. The team is forced to do a bunch of back-peddling and cost justification. They feel 'burned' by the experience. What lesson do they take away? Do they:

a. Try to understand why the VP reacted badly and figure out other strategies to gain his sponsorship and support?
b. Seek the support of other VPs against the team's new perceived threat?
c. Learn never again to invite a VP in to see a prototype?
d. Learn that all efforts at accountability and management are the enemies of innovation and that any product design process, to be successful, needs to be shielded from outside eyes until the product is ready to deliver to manufacturing.

The fact is that, whether we mean to or not, we do learn from experience. But let's face it. A lot of what we learn in work groups would make the average cat look good. Why is that?

Part of it is complexity. It's a lot harder to learn when it involves ten different brains with ten different sets of history to factor in. Just look at any one debate in Congress for evidence of this. Part of it is inattention. We are too busy looking forward to the next deadline to see what we are carrying with us from the past. Because decision times are compressed, we have a tendency to default to whatever we think is safe ground, which too often is our "never again's." Part of it is our drive to action. Once we've dotted the 'i's on one objective, it's on to the next. Who wants to stop to do a post-mortem? It takes a horrific or repeated failure - take the loss of Challenger, or NASA's recent pitiful performance record with its Mars probes, for instance - to drive us to reflection. And part of it is the assumption that what was true yesterday is ancient history today. Watergate was centuries ago, wasn't it?

But we carry these weakling lessons with us nonetheless. And these lessons - especially of the "never again" variety - are self-reinforcing. Just living is proof to the cat that its self-prescribed prohibition from entering the kitchen demonstrated great wisdom. Living in Internet time, we have learned to equate smart with fast. The irony is that the faster we move, the less attention we can pay to the past, the more likely our work groups are to hold on to these less-than-stellar lessons, the more likely we are to reinvent wheels and recreate our favorite mistakes. But to be positioned to win in the future, we need business units that take the highest quality lessons from their experience; that are not afraid to experiment; that can test their self-prescribed "never again's."

Look around at your most important business units - the ones on whose performance your future success is most likely to hinge. Are their past mistakes seen as exceptions? Are failures attributed to unanticipated "externalities?" Are they at risk of resting on the laurels of their past successes without learning from them? Are there 'kitchens' into which they will never again venture?

In a constantly transforming marketplace, your company's ability to reinvent itself comes in part from business units that can keep their thinking fresh and unencumbered. And ironically, one of the most powerful tools you can use to keep your thinking fresh is to get good at looking back; to learn well from experience so the mistakes you make are new ones, driven by innovation, not by your most cherished "never again's."

 

 
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