Sunday, December 25, 2016

I was wrong and here is what I learned

How often do we say "I was wrong"?  I know I don't do it that often and when I do, I'm likely to brush it off as a small error in judgment, giving myself a chance to move on quickly. I am rather good at self-justification and denial when it suits me.  We all are.

After reading Matthew Syed's Black Box Thinking, I followed up with Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Travis and Aronson, both of which inspired the following question which should be asked of job applicants:  "Have you ever been convinced of something only to change your mind when confronted with evidence that you were wrong?  Tell me about it."  It's an interesting alternative to "tell me about a time when you failed at somethinig?"

I was wrong and here is what I learned.

Based on my interpretation of past experience, I was convinced that a Pause and Learn session (group reflection activity) is best implemented with minimal preparation on the part of the participants.  The standard process involved a planning meeting between the session facilitator (me) and the point of contact within the project (typically the project manager or his deputy) to idiscuss who should be invited to the Pause and Learn session and what the key topics or areas of focus might be.  While the standard Pause and Learn questions are generic enought to work in 90% of Pause and Learn session, the fact that they are so generic can throw people off a little.  With some advanced knowledge of the project's experience and key topics to be addressed during the session, the facilitator is better able to guide the conversation without necessarily mandating that the specific topics be addressed.

It is also not unusual for the project POC during that planning meeting or even before that meeting, to inquire as to what he/she needs to ask the participants to do to prepare for the meeting.  I generally respond that while they should obviously feel free to think about their experience, what they've learned, what went well and what could have been done differently, they do not need to prepare anything. My fear in this context has always been that each attendee would come ready with their individual lessons in PowerPoint format and the session would turn into a dozen or more individual presentations of individual lessons.  These types of presentations do not lend themselves to discussion or group learning.  Once something is written down as a lesson on a PowerPoint chart, it is more difficult for anyone to dispute it than if someone makes a point verbally within a conversation.

For these reasons and the fact that the No Preparation method is what I was taught by the Chief Knowledge Officer when I was still in training mode with regards to Pause and Learn sessions, I have consistently tried to dissuade teams from doing written prep-work.  

I have also, over the years, learned to be flexible. My role is to help the projects document their lessons, not implement a rigid, standardized process.  Some projects have done just fine documenting their lessons without my support, implementing their own process.  

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by a project to conduct a Pause and Learn session and I could immediately tell based on early email interactions that the team was planning on doing some pre-work. Two positive points here:  1) they approached me.  I didn't have to chase them down; 2) they are volunteering for some extra work and they obviously take this very seriously.  

My initial instinct was to convince them not to go that route.  Finally, meeting face-to-face with the project POC, we came to an agreement, openly discussing my reservations about the approach and coming up with mitigation strategies to ensure that my concerns would not materialize but they would have the benefit of pre-work. 

* While each of the participants would prepare some written materials, these were meant for discussion and each participant would need to prioritize their lessons.  There would be only time to discuss 2-3 key lessons per person.
* No specific file format was mandated.  The draft lessons came in as PowerPoints, emails, Excel spreadsheets, and Word document.  No template for documenting a lesson was mandated or even suggested, Some came in the form of well-thought out paragraphs while others followed a standard template with a lesson title, context section, lesson description, and recommendation section. Allowing people to articulate their lessons freely without too many format constraints is important at this stage.  That's a hypothesis more than a fact.  One could also argue that it's difficult to reconcile different formats and interpretations of what a lesson really is unless a standard format and template is provided to all. 

What happened?

I gained confidence in the approach when I saw the initial draft lessons learned coming in ahead of the session.  There were a lot of high value lessons for discussion.

Throughout the session itself, the Project POC played a key role in helping me to control the flow of the conversation so that we would keep moving and not lose momentum in rabbit holes.  His intimate knowledge of the existing team dynamics were particularly helpful.  Whereas he knew when someone's silence was perfectly normal and expected, I didn't.  Whereas he knew who was going to wander off with tangents and he could stop them early, as an outsider to the project, I didn't.  

This high performance, highly disciplined team proved to me that this new approach could work very well.  Would I recommend it for every team?  No, but it's definitely an option to consider.


  • It is possible to change one's mind even after it has been made up, but it does take some work. It's uncomfortable. Being open minded and flexible means being willing to reconsider assumptions and prior experience -- without completely ignoring prior experience, hence the uncomfortable tension.  In this case, open discussion of the potential drawbacks of the approach, and active mitigation (both in the planning and implementation of the session) were very helpful in addressing my discomfort/anxiety.
  • Be willing to experiment with new approaches, and treat these experiments as serious opportunities to learn.   If the new approach works, ask yourself questions:  Why/how does it work?  Under what conditions would it work/not work?