Monday, 19 October 2015

When investigation is implied as criticism

One organisation's learning culture and behaviours can easily be misinterpreted by another. Here is a cautionary tale from General Stanley McChrystal.

The culture of the US Army is always to review, and always to learn. Any operation which offers learning potential, whether it is conducted by a US Army unit or a coalition partner unit, will be investigated so that the learning points can be gathered. This is particularly the case when the unit suffered casualties.

This investigation is routine for the US Army, for successful or unsuccessful missions.  However the coalition partners do not have the same culture.

When the General asked for an investigation of a partner mission in 2006, this was seen as implied criticism. As the General reports -

"In their culture, a senior officer ordering such an investigation was sending a clear message: “I don’t trust your judgment.” As a result, the coalition operators took a hard look at how they were operating and decided they needed to adjust some of their tactics on their next mission. Their commanders thought that, because I ordered the investigation on their previous raid, I wanted to avoid the use of additional firepower (such as airborne assets) at all costs, even if it meant endangering the safety of operators on the ground. This couldn’t have been further from the truth — but it was their interpretation that mattered, not the intent behind the order that sat in my mind".
Therefore in the next mission, the coalition unit refused to ask for airborne assist based on their assumption that this had been implicitly criticised, and had a hard time of it as a result.

The lessons for Knowledge Management

General McChrystal derives several personal lessons from this event, mostly about the need to communicate strategic intent so that it is not misinterpreted at tactical level.

However there is one clear lesson for all Knowledge Management initiatives, which is to clarify the intent of any learning activity. This particularly applies to lesson learning, which many organisations interpret to imply criticism, and therefore see lesson capture events as "witch-hunts".

Before conducting any lesson capture event in an organisation (or area of an organisation) where this is not routine, you need to make it very clear that this is not an evaluation exercise; it is not a means to criticise or to appoint praise and blame - it is instead a no-blame process intended only to derive learning for the future.

If you do not make such an intent clear, then (as General McChrystal's story shows), people will draw their own inferences of the intent, often with negative consequences.

1 comment:

Rupert Lescott said...

Leaders must lead by example. #KM

Interesting insight, Nick.

I have come across similar cultural differences between companies when facilitating lessons capture. As you know, some large oil/gas firms use bilateral lessons capture with their contractors once engineering projects are over. Often, the client firm (instigating the lessons capture) is more experienced in KM and therefore more at ease discussing things that did not go according to plan. Often, the contractor is less familiar and occasionally can get defensive.

In such cases, the best Project Managers I have encountered have shown themselves willing to discuss issues that might be difficult and have taken care to use inclusive language - i.e. "we can do better on this next time" and NOT "you must do better on this next time."

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