Learning Opportunities

Normally when I get started on a new post I have an idea as to what the title should be. I sat here and knew what the topic was that I wanted to cover, but try as I might I could not come up with a title that satisfied me. I had a few but when they sound trite to even my own ear, they don’t make it to the post. Hopefully an idea for the title will present itself during the course of the post. Interesting, I normally don’t have a problem titling a post.

Over the course of my career I have learned that I am a positive reinforcement type of individual. I tend to focus on what I need to do to get better, as well as what the team needs to do to improve. That does not mean that I ignore my own or others mistakes. It does mean that I have found that going back and beating myself up, or beating up others for past mistakes does not normally provide a constructive solution. Since there is no way to go back and modify a behavior or decision that has already occurred, it seems to me that the best approach is to acknowledge the issue, understand what caused it, and take the appropriate steps to first solve it and then make sure that you have learned enough so that you don’t repeat the same issue in the future. Pretty simple, but it seems to have worked very well for me.

Too often it seems that issue resolution loses its way and becomes more of a historical re-visitation of the issue in order to make sure that blame is appropriately assigned. While culpability will be a topic of concern in the longer term, the immediate topic needs to remain on the issue resolution. Besides, I have also found that by the time the issue has manifested itself, those ultimately responsible for the issue are either abundantly aware of their own actions that were the genesis of the issue, or long gone from the scene.

No one likes to be wrong and no one likes to make mistakes. However once the mistake has been made there is the immediate need to rectify the situation. Corrective actions need to be scoped out and implemented. Once that is done and the solution is in process, then the learning opportunity can be examined on both an individual and business level. Again the focus needs to be on what has to be done on order to achieve the desired results or conversely what needs to be done to avoid the undesirable results.

It may be a subtle difference but it can and will set the entire tone for the team going forward in how it behaves and works. Looking at what needed to be done right in order to achieve the desired goals will automatically create a learning experience when people compare it with what was actually done. Looking at what was done has the potential to be perceived as more of a blaming experience than a learning experience.

Focusing on the positive aspect of what needs / needed to be done instead of focusing on the specific activity that generated the issue is one of the best ways to keep an issue that currently just needs resolution from devolving into what can be perceived as almost solely a blame assignment exercise. It is critical to understand this from a team leadership point of view, otherwise you can run the risk of having the team disengage from the resolution process.

By keeping a focus on what needed to be done you can retain the team’s capability to make aggressive decisions and take decisive actions. If everyone understands that issues will be resolved and reviewed from the point of view what needed to be done as opposed to the perception of holding any individual or team’s mistakes up for analysis, you will continue to encourage the team to make those types of decisions or to take those kinds of actions.

If your post issue actions become not much more than an analysis of the incorrect decision or action, you will begin to incite those individuals or teams to not “risk” making those decisions or to take those actions, as no one like to have the mistakes specifically and publically aired. By focusing on the negative you are encouraging the team to avoid the negative reinforcement.

You would hope that avoiding this negative reinforcement would result in more positive result generating decisions and actions. What I have found is that it normally results in fewer decisions or unilateral actions of any kind as people withdraw from risking the negative exposure.

Let me repeat that. Negative reinforcement or even the perception of negative reinforcement will result in fewer mistakes and issues because people will stop making decisions or taking actions. The only way to assure that you are never wrong is to not make the decision or take the action.

By looking at what needed to be done instead of what was done the business leader can communicate the same learning experience to the team or individual without the perception of it being an analysis of what that team or individual did wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. The objective is to keep everyone striving to do more, but with fewer mistakes. If people only recognize the downside of the mistake, the analysis of what they did wrong, they may choose to reduce the potentiality of repeating that uncomfortable event by becoming just that much more conservative in their approach to business.

In the times of that much more aggressive competition and the various drives to reduce costs and improve margins, it will not be the fully conservative approach that will carry the day. It will be new and innovative ideas, decisions and actions that move organizations and businesses forward.

Not everything new and innovative will work. However I think we are all in reasonable agreement that many of the current methods and directions associated with businesses (and government for that matter) today will not take us where we need or desire to go.

If we focus on the mistakes that get made instead of taking action to correct them and focusing on what the proper course of action is for future events we are encouraging people to not make mistakes. This on the surface is good. The only problem is as I have already said; the only way that I know of to assure that you don’t make a mistake is to not do anything. In taking the mistake focused approach, this is invariably what you get – fewer mistakes because there are much fewer decisions and actions taken.

I still don’t have a title for this post that I am fully happy with. That means that I will have to go with instinct on this one. If it’s wrong, I guess I’ll just have to look at it as another learning opportunity for me.

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