Thursday 29 October 2009

Looking back to look forward

I have spent quite a lot of my recent working life in trying to draw out lessons from the past, and I am increasingly convinced that this is an unnatural act.

Many organisations develop some sort of post-project review, or post-project appraisal, and the enlightened ones bring in an external facilitator to help them. We spend time reviewing what happened in the project, identifying the success factors and the pitfalls, and talking over the stories. However in my view, the only point in reviewing the past is to improve the future, and at some stage we need to discuss what we have learned, what we will do differently in the future in similar circumstances, and how we make this happen. This is when the following conversation often happens

Nick “Folks, we have discussed the issue of the contract, and the effect this had on the contractor behaviour. My question to you now is, if you were doing a project like this in future, but knowing what you know now, how would you address the contracting”?

Team. “Yes, that was a real problem, it was a lousy contract, and (blah blah)”

Nick “But in a similar situation in future, what you do differently”?

Team. “It was a real problem for us – the contractor just didn’t (blah blah)”

Nick “But how would you advise a future project in a similar situation”?

Team. “You can’t generalise something like that”

Well, I am afraid you CAN generalise, and there almost always IS useful knowledge to pass on. But to come up with these, you need to review the past in order to dig out the root causes, and then turn your vision to the future, and express the learning points. The first two answers above really mean “we haven’t finished talking about the past yet”, and the third one means “You expect me to analyse, rather than reflect? But that is hard work!!”

You have to get them to analyse. They are the most appropriate people to analyse, to draw out the learning points, and to generalise or recommend for the future, because they were there – they know the detail – they lived the experience. But this IS hard work, it DOES require more than reflection. It requires analysis and speculation and creativity. It requires looking forward, in a meeting where (up to now) they have been looking backward.

However to drive an organisation, just like driving a car, you need to look both backwards and forwards. The rear view mirror informs your forward strategy. The role of the facilitator is to make sure the backward view is not just reminiscence and reflection, but includes analysis that will lead to change and to action, and that will improve the future performance of the company.

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