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Learning from Experience, Experiencing to Learn

While we have all learned from experiences, what does it mean to create experiences from which to learn? In this context it carries the meaning of planning to gain something that allows for growth and development from every action undertaken, or at least from the sigificant actions undertaken. While we have all learned from doing something the first time, we commonly do not actively look to learn more after we have conducted a task numerous times. It seems many projects performed within a company in a speicifc industry, for example, there can often be a common restructuring of past activities or sub-sections of previous projects. This type of mental model encourages recycling which can discourage learning. This approach, when not coupled with a continous improvement approach, actually diminishes the growth potential for our personnel and our organization. We see this type of activity in organizations and it is evident when you hear someone say, “That is always how we done this or that.” In today’s ever-changing technological world statements like this is most certainly a condemning strategy that cannot be allowed to flourish.

There are many things to learn from doing the work. Learning better ways to accomplish the work is important. The level of competition in the field may vary from industry to industry, but the fact is to remain in business requires constantly working to improve the way the work is done, as well as improving any product that is the result of the project. Both have implications on those doing the work as well as the customer or client of the organization.

Field failures can be painful for the project and the organization

Figure 3.1 Field failures can be painful for the project and the organization.

Learning over time will show up in how the work is done as well as the product

Figure 3.2 Learning over time will show up in how the work is done as well as the product.

Learning from Experience, Experiencing to Learn ■ 79

Learning from Experience

Any ongoing concern, and especially early in the organization’s life, there will be many challenges and opportunities to which the organization would like to advantage. A company that inspires the team members to experiment, has many minds working on its behalf. These experiences are the sort of things that help us build our people, departments and organization at large. This learning is not limited to process improvements, or corrective actions, but also opportunities for generating new ideas for new products that may end up in the product portfolio. Consider the story of 3M, providing employees with 15% of the work time to explore, experiment and experience things upon which a future can be built.*

In 1948, 3M introduced a unique program that quickly became one of the signature elements of the company’s reputation for innovation.

The 15% program, which continues today, allows employees to dedicate up to six hours a week to their own projects, to range beyond the responsibilities of their job, hatch their own ideas and see what can become of them. The program is a perk that delivers benefits both to the individual and the company. Among other innovations, the company attributes the invention of Post-it® Brand notes to 15% time.

How Can We Get Good Judgment (Learn)?

Projects are unique; each present a distinctive challenge, though these challenges often are constant in theme allowing an extrapolation to other projects. We can see in projects, functional areas, and business processes where this failure of learning costs our organization dearly. Learning and adapting are hallmarks of good project

There is a connection between failure, learning and success

Figure 3.3 There is a connection between failure, learning and success.

management and of functioning organizations. Making mistakes is not a problem as that is how we learn.

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

Rita Mae Brown

What Happens When We Do Not Improve Our Judgment (Learn)?

However, we should not consistently burn our hand on the same stovetop and act surprised. If you find your project or organization making the same set of mistakes, you have a learning problem. To be sure not all can be known, but if you are learning every day, more is known every day.

There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.

Laurence J. Peter

What Are “the Limits of Learning?”

It may at times seem like the organization as an entirety is not capable of learning. That is one of the reason we have hyperfocused on the learning organization. Learning at the organizational level is walking a tight rope. Learn something productive and necessary, while not excluding alternatives that may work next time.

We should be careful to get out of an experience all the wisdom that is in it — not like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Mark Twain

Each failure, each success provides us with an opportunity to learn. If we take and maximize that opportunity (spread throughout the organization) we become stronger as an organization. We learn more as a group about what works and what does not work. This is helpful for the product, and for the project, but we must pay attention to what is going on and listen to those that have learned lessons that we have not yet learned, as well as teach lessons to those who have not learned. Student and teacher are one and the same.

Learning from failures is important, because not learning from the failure is costly, corrosive to the project and the company’s reputation, and equally important

Learning happens anywhere, labs, classroom and doing the work

Figure 3.4 Learning happens anywhere, labs, classroom and doing the work.

is not likely to be very motivating for the team members that are repeatedly suffering the same consequences of the same recurring failure.

Planning Experiences to learn

Planning to learn from an activity (experience) is something that needs built into as many activities as possible to get away from the “that is how we have always done it” state of mind. Additionally, any continuous improvement initiative of the organization will require a constant and consistent application of effort into improvement. Additionally, when you plan some form of improvement from an activity it inherently implies that a deeper understanding of the activity exists and is beneficial to acquire. While this might not actually be the case, it will become evident when we assess what is learned against what was expected to be learned. Either way, the planning and the activity will produce some form of knowledge via individual experiences. Whether we are after a better system understanding, or an improvement in an activity or even better, both. This is a prime example of a learning organization: planning to learn. While many organizations are reactionary using cause mapping and critiques to hopefully correct issues, a learning organization seeks opportunities to learn from activities rather than waiting for issues to arise. However, not even the best learning organization is immune from an unforeseen development (specific risk), but the more that is known, the easier it is to identify risks to the project and the organization. While a non-learning organization commonly seeks a rapid restoration to business as normal, not really exploring the root cause, a learning organization will seek the true underlying issue to allow a more effective solution. These will ideally culminate in checkpoints for validation to ensure those things learned are applied and produce the desired project effectiveness or need of modification.

Lessons Learned and Lasting Impact

It is one thing to learn at the individual level, it is another to learn at the organization level. An organization has multiple departments, disparate and often competing focus and objectives, and hierarchial structure.

Tlie second step to developing a lasting change from a lesson learned is to understand what was actually learned and how that applies to the system (organization) as a whole. While you would think that what was learned from a lesson would be quite obvious, the lesson learned is commonly jaded by position protection. This single point perspective also effects the ability to determine the impact on the system as a whole and all but completely negates the possibility of a lasting change. While office politics are hard to overcome there are ways to reduce their effect on lessons learned. The most common way is to employ cross functional area group review of lessons learned. This is to say that interrelated departments discuss the lesson learned and how it relates to their processes as a group promoting communication between groups, a better system understanding, and a more effective and lasting change.

Learning Behavior

From our previous discussion in an earlier chapter, you may remember the leadership equation: В =/{(Exp3) (A2) (DJ (T)} {/(P2)(GB + GTX)(WC)}, which was derived from Lewin’s equation of В =/f P,E), (Lewin, 1936). Since we have discussed all of these concepts before it is time to work toward understanding their interrelations.

The most logical starting point is personnel behavior (attitude), there may be some common ways in which we act when we start a task or job. This starting attitude is usually based on being unsure of position and little to no perception of how things are done within the organization. This, coupled with the recollection of the situational leadership curve, leads us to surmise that most individuals start with a positive attitude.

Usually during the introduction phase to a new job or task, communication is at its highest. This usual high level of communication has an effect on the perception the individual has of their situation. The manner and message being communicated will

determine what effect it has on perception, ’[hen the perception of the situation will affect the type of experience the individual gains from the task. This brings us right back to the behavior/attitude of the individual. As the number of good or not so good experiences buildup over time they start feeding back on perception. We all refer to this as therefore been there done that or that is what we always do in these situations.

This internal feedback of experience to perception has a log-rhythmic for negative experiences and is therefore hard to overcome after just a short period of time.

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