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Learning from looking forward

Kiddy & Partners

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The Coronavirus pandemic, and resulting lockdown, has forced us to pause and ponder how we get through this and what lies ahead.

Whilst many high performing businesses have effective post-mortem or ‘after action review’ processes, often in-depth post-mortems are isolated to project failures, and we fail to put as much effort into looking forwards as we do back. Yet research shows that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred and deeply contemplating possible outcomes—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30% [1].

Businesses have achieved many amazing feats over the past few weeks, achieving change at an unprecedented pace and scale in response to the current crisis. It’s tempting to enter into a short phase of self and peer congratulation and then move on to the next challenge. However, as is wonderfully articulated by Matthew Syed and his work on ‘Black Box Thinking’, we progress fastest and learn the most when we look to learn from all experiences.

To avoid falling prey to ‘failure-to-ask-why syndrome’ – the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance in a systematic way – we need to ask ourselves tough questions that would expand our knowledge about how we ensure we replicate this again on the next project, under different circumstances. Rather than simply file the experience under ‘project success’, we need to review feedback data with a critical eye. “You look at the data when you want to understand what’s going wrong. You do not look at the data because you want to understand why you’re performing well” [2].

Moving forwards, we could also conduct pre-mortems to anticipate where potential challenges and obstacles might lie. The pre-mortem is a strategy in which a manager imagines that a project or organisation has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially could lead to that failure. This prospective hindsight approach offers benefits that other methods don’t [3]. It not only helps teams to identify potential problems early on, but also readies the team to identify signs of trouble early. As such, it’s an antidote for overconfidence bias. Whilst continued success has the positive effect of increasing our self-belief, healthy questioning ensures that this doesn’t turn into arrogance, or the dangerous assumption that we don’t need to change anything.

Now is the time to reflect and start making changes. Review successes with as much detail as failures, identify the conditions required to replicate success, and hone the capability to conduct effective pre-mortems so that teams can change before they have to. We don’t know when this current period lock-down and a pause on the economy is going to the end, but if we can be clear on what are our most effective strategies for success, and under which circumstances, we can apply them readily as it unfolds.

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References: 

[1] Mitchell, D.J., Russo, E.J., Pennington, N. (1989). Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2(1), 25-38.

[2] Gino, F., & Pisano, G. (2011). Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success, Harvard Business Review, April: 68–74.

[3]Klein. G. (2007). Performing a Project Pre-mortem. Harvard Business Review. September: 18–19.

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