Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
Are positive experiences as powerful learning tools as negative ones? Perhaps the more important question in an organisation should be, do successful projects offer as much value as negative ones? The key here is ‘value’ and too many organisations (public, private and third sector) focus their time and energy solely towards the negative and miss the opportunity to harness the lessons of success – often to their cost.
Working with an international company, based in Europe, the executive management team were proud of the fact that they had a ‘positive’ knowledge culture. They were excited about me meeting their operations team, as they believed I was going to be surprised at how positive the culture was and how much they celebrated success. Letters of commendation and shopping vouchers for the local mall were given out at project meetings on a monthly basis. If things seem too good to be true, they probably are…
Reality existed in stark contrast to the executive view. Staff said that the only way to get noticed in the company was to have a problem. Successful projects were seldom recognised and positive lessons learned were never captured. Staff waited for projects to ‘go south’ so that they could get on management’s radar; a poorly performing project resulted in a raised profile and letters of commendation when the project was turned around.
The more people we talked to the more it became apparent that this was a deep-seated problem. The company judged the performance of their operational staff on customer feedback reports; fair enough. The problem was that ‘high-performers’, people with good customer feedback scores seemed to fly below the radar; they received good appraisal scores, but the interim day-to-day attention just wasn’t there.
What was concerning was that solutions to the problems at the core of the projects that were ‘going south’ already existed. The solutions just hadn’t been captured or made visible because staff with high levels of positive customer feedback just got on with the job. There was no need to produce a ‘lesson learned’ for successful projects, there was no need to present to other project teams on how to the high customer feedback was attained and the only apparent ‘benefit’ was an increase in workload, by being assigned more projects to manage, which improved the likelihood that staff would manage a project that would ‘go south’. This ignorance to the learning experiences available in the positives was actually costing the company; causing operational lag as staff learned again what was already known and all the while risking reputational damage; to say nothing of the potential for lost business and competitive advantage – and this company was strategically focused on growth, through improved project provision and the development of service products.
KM writers have often spoken of the powerful learning experiences afforded when things go wrong, and for creating a culture where it is safe to fail, but they are only as good as the processes that support them. To give you an example, lessons learned are only valuable if they can be accessed, evaluated, re-used, developed and shared; they’re useless if they are uploaded into SharePoint, lacking an index ‘tag’ or other form of knowledge structuring (indexing), where only the up-loader knows of their existence! Believe me, it happens. This was the case with this company, where staff (over 50 interviewed), across departments, couldn’t point to a single time where they had ever accessed a lesson learned up-loaded by any of their colleagues.
Take a look at classic learning models, such as Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (see picture); where does it state that it only works with negative experiences?
Argyris & Schon’s ‘Double Loop Learning’, where do they say that governing variables and applied strategy should only be reviewed when things are ‘going south’?
The learning experience is undoubtedly powerful when things are going wrong, but the cost of not understanding, or capturing, what differentiates your high performers could actually be costing you more than you know (forgive the pun).
And what about those letters of commendation and the shopping vouchers…?
Staff did receive them, for projects that had ‘gone south’, not one person interviewed had received one for a purely successful project – and there were a lot of them out there. This wasn’t a company where everything went wrong. Secondly, staff complained! They said the shopping voucher was almost an insult, it didn’t reflect the effort they had put in and they believed that it reflected the ‘value’ the company placed on their work, $15.
Another lesson to be learned?