The Art and Science of Lessons Learnt

January 26, 2009

At the end of every project, it is customary to hold a lessons learnt activity (sometimes called a project postmortem or a project retrospective).

This may range from an informal get-together to share thoughts to a structured and facilitated multi-day workshop, depending on the importance of the project.

The nature of the meeting will depend alot on whether the project was viewed (by the team and management) as a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’. Unfortunately both these words are quite emotive and can often make it difficult to extract something resembling the ‘truth’ (or at least a close approximation to it).

Projects, such as a bid, can be successful just as much through a competitor making a bad mistake as a team producing a brilliant proposal, although this is usually quite unlikely to be brought out and emphasised (assuming it is even known). And conversely for failing projects. It’s tricky!

The results of these meetings are hopefully captured (by facts, advice and stories) and the results made available for wider access, both informally through meetings and conversations and also through a document repository. The aim is that future teams (and hopefully management) can benefit from these past experiences, bearing in mind that ‘past performance is not a guide to future performance’.

This again is not straightforward as project observations can be so generic as to be practically worthless (eg inexperienced project manager, poor choice of subcontractors etc) or so specific that only a handful of staff can understand them, let alone benefit from them. This is where the artfulness comes in, getting the balance and focus right for the organisation whilst being sensitive to it’s prevalent culture.

Finally, the degree to which genuine insights are effectively dispersed within an organisation is another factor crucial to generating useful incremental improvements (steps) or major changes (leaps).

In fact it’s pretty amazing how often you hear or read the term ‘lessons learnt’ in newspaper articles, the TV and radio. It always seems to assume it’s a fairly mechanical and all-redeeming exercise – it isn’t, and it never will be!


The Surprising Power of (Project) Checklists

January 23, 2009

sssl_checklistInteresting (and life enhancing) project carried out by the World Health Organisation: Safe Surgery Saves Lives. Amazingly they found that the consistent use of a simple checklist lead to significant improvements across developing and (more surprisingly/shockingly) developed countries (see FAQ section):

“Q7: Does the Checklist apply to all settings? How does it impact developed and developing nations differently?

A: The most developed countries tend to have well established and codified guidelines for the process of care during the perioperative period, although these are often inconstantly applied. Other settings may lack clear guidelines and policies for directing the perioperative process. The guidelines and Checklist can help countries and facilities evaluate their own processes of care and improve surgical safety. Moreover, even in the developed world, there is variability in adhering to the six basic safety practices mentioned above.”

Checklists are a popular (and often derided) way of helping in the management of most projects. It’s probably true that the idea is basically fine, it’s just that if it’s ‘inconstantly applied’ (as politely described above) then errors will occur. Checklists obviously can’t take the place of thinking but can nevertheless be important reminders (if answered honestly).

“Q4. Don’t hospitals already use Checklists?

A: Many hospitals do already have checks in place, but their consistent use is dismayingly variable. Many developed settings perform a “Time Out” where the team confirms the patient identity, procedure, and site of operation. Teams are using this time to perform and expand briefing, but this has never been elaborated to the extent that the Safe Surgery Saves Lives project has done.”

Just replace hospital by company or organisation and patient operation by project…

Hopefully this change really ‘sticks’ whilst previously it obviously didn’t. Maybe something similarly fresh and invigorating would work for your projects?

Writing In The Age of Distraction

January 21, 2009

Nice incisive post by Gary Doctorow on Writing In The Age of Distraction.

His key recommendations are:

  • Short, regular work schedule
  • Leave yourself a rough edge – namely learn to Stop!
  • Don’t research – rather radical sounding, just means keep the workflow going
  • Don’t be ceremonious – don’t wait for the perfect setup
  • Kill your word-processor – keep things as simple as possible
  • Realtime communications tools are deadly

It’s good to remember the difference between collaborating and sharing and actually doing the work, you need to get the balance right (for you, in your role).

On that note, I think I’d better turn my email and newsfeed reader off for a while, they’re both maniacally compulsive…

7 Principles of Small Innovations

January 20, 2009


There is a nice post on by Darrell Zahorsky on 7 Principles of Small Innovations. The insights are not new of course but are certainly a good and concise reminder as it’s easy in daily practice to focus on a few and accidentally ignore or demote the others! Here they are:

1. Free Time: Time is a necessary resource for innovation. You don’t need a 25-hour day to solve your time resource problem. It’s simply a matter of clearing your business from the clutter of old time consuming practices, outdated technology, time wasting habits, and using outsourcing.

2. Collect Ideas: Innovative ideas can occur at any place or anytime. The best way to grab the small innovative ideas is not to discover them and think about it later. It’s too easy to forget or quickly rationalize that it’s too simple. Just carry around a small pocket notebook, a tape recorder, or a few sticky notes.

3. Look Outside: No matter how good an innovation is use not only the knowledge and skills within your business but outside resources to succeed including capital, joint ventures, strategic alliances, and strong relationships with suppliers.

4. Be Customer Centric: While applying innovation to your business, it’s easy to see the advantages from your perspective while missing the customers’ view. Big companies are notorious for innovating on the inside with innovations such as self-serve to time stressed customers. If the innovation makes you feel uncomfortable but delights the customer, you are probably on the right track.

5. Use All Types Of Innovation: Many of us think of small innovations as an improvement on an existing procedure, operation, or product. This form of innovation is linear and is often necessary to make your business better. But other forms of innovation exist such as the unexpected or simple innovation.

Small innovations can end up being a big innovation even when they appear simple at first. In 1998, Google’s founders were busy building the code for the search engine and needed a home page so they put up a simple page with lots of white space. This simple small innovation was instrumental to Google’s success and led to faster download times.

6. Ask the Right Questions: If you’re asking customers for feedback on your products and services you will get a few innovations around those features. To play the innovation game, ask the customer what their experience was like.

7. Make a Daily Habit: Innovation doesn’t often occur in a meeting or at a desired time. Small innovations occur at anytime and any place. Make it a daily practice to apply innovation to your small business and implement your best ideas.”

Coping With ‘The Curse of Knowledge’

January 19, 2009

The so-called Curse of Knowledge came to my attention through the popular ‘Made To Stick’ book of Dan and Chip Heath where they advocated using ‘sticky ideas’ to help overcome the problem. They also commented on it during a Q&A session with Guy Kawasaki:

“ People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”

And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.“

The issue of The Curse of Knowledge is a very familiar one. From my own business experience, it’s especially problematic when meetings involve multi-disciplinary staff eg a product development meeting that involves sales managers as well as technical or research experts. The aim of the meeting is to develop one joint and compelling understanding of the issue at hand but instead often delivers a selection of quite different and sometimes conflicting understandings!

Common issues that increase the The Curse of Knowledge include:

  • People have actually forgotten the basics
  • Being smart but difficult to understand is perceived as good for job preservation
  • Ego and status, showing-off
  • It’s hard, it may require a lot of work from both sides
  • Assumed not to be a critical problem
  • Specialisation early on leads to knowledge fragmentation
  • Communication skills rarely taught as a key skill rather picked up ad-hoc

To combat this, The Curse of Knowledge can be decreased by:

  • Using ‘sticky’ messages – easily remembered and disseminated
  • Having ‘jargon free’ days with fun penalties – that’s probably a bit radical
  • Training and practising having ‘enhanced conversations’
  • Studying and implementing how others explain things simply and clearly eg science popularisations in prize-winning books and magazine articles
  • Encouraging the use of evocative metaphors, analogies and proxies
  • Exploring different types of meetings and outputs (stories, pictures, mindmaps etc) to see which delivers better joint understandings of complex issues

As an example of setting up and running different types of meetings to spark better conversations, take a look at the work of David Gurteen and his Knowledge and Innovation Cafes.

Overall, two insightful quotes of Einstein seem particularly and perennially relevant:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

”If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.“

Mind you, easier said than done…

Viewing The Fall Of GM

January 13, 2009


Nice visualisation of the (presumed) fall of GM from the WallStats blog. It attractively emphasises the point that there are many intertwined rather than just one or two main causes.

Although there is key information missing, such as timelines and relative importance and the picture may not even be complete, the jumble of boxes certainly captures the imagination and seems to encourages fresh thinking about things. Standard business mindmaps don’t always have a similar impact (although they can sometimes be adapted). They display the same information in a very structured (and concise manner) but in doing so they can lose the visual pizzazz that helps spark ‘reinvigorated’ thinking (more on this later).

In general, such information visualisation methods can be a powerful way to communicate and stimulate thinking about ‘lessons learnt’ in complex bids and projects to complement the customary reports and stories.

From Wikipedia (January, 2009):

General Motors Corporation (GM), the world’s largest automaker, has been the annual global industry sales leader for 77 years. Founded in 1908, GM today employs about 266,000 people around the world. With global headquarters in Detroit, GM manufactures its cars and trucks in 35 countries. In 2007, nearly 9.37 million GM cars and trucks were sold globally under the following brands: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GM Daewoo, GMC, Holden, Hummer, Opel, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Vauxhall, and Wuling. GM’s OnStar subsidiary is the industry leader in vehicle safety, security and information services. GM’s largest national market is the United States, followed by China, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany.

In recent years the company has endured significant financial turmoil, including a $50 billion dollar loss in 2007 and 2008. On December 19, 2008, the Bush administration granted $17.4 billion in low-interest loans for GM and Chrysler to weather the current credit crisis.