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Volume 17, Issue 1;   January 4, 2017: More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

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Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space Command

Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space Command, where he served from 1990 to 1992. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, President Reagan appointed a commission to investigate the incident. Gen. Kutyna was a member, along with Caltech Nobel Laureate Professor Richard Feynman. It was Kutyna, foremost among others, who encouraged Prof. Feynman to focus on the failure of the Solid Rocket Booster O-rings as a cause of the disaster. In a 1988 memoir, Prof. Feynman recounted Gen. Kutyna's role, and went on to suggest that the General had acted as he did to protect the source of his information, an astronaut. Evidently there was some reason to be concerned about recriminations. If so, then psychological safety may have been absent or degraded within the NASA culture.

These possibilities are explored in a fascinating 1992 work by Howard Schwartz, Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay: The Theory of the Organizational Ideal.

Photo courtesy U.S. Space Command.

When we succeed, we rarely have difficulty finding possible explanations. People tend to volunteer them, especially if they're seeking personal credit. But when we fail, candidate explanations can be more difficult to uncover, even when we gather for sessions intended to find those explanations.

When we work as groups to learn what might be the underlying causes of failures, we can encounter patterns that create obstacles to learning. I cataloged some of them back in 2012, but I've since encountered a few more.

The scene is a group session convened to determine what we might do better, what we might stop doing, or what we might start doing. I'll use the names Willis or Wanda for the person who is withholding information.

Withholding in case of plausible ignorance
When Wanda has a critical piece of information, but feels that it might reflect badly on her, or on someone who might retaliate if she reveals it, she is inclined to withhold it if she feels certain that nobody else knows that she knows.
Psychological safety is a prerequisite for productive retrospectives. Learn how to establish it, and how to verify that you have it.
Withholding when misapprehension is clear
Even though Willis believes that people misunderstand what happened, he doesn't offer his view of the events, for reasons similar to Wanda's above.
Do what you can to verify that the interpretation of events you believe is shared is actually shared. Ask open-ended questions about how things could have gone differently, and what would have been necessary for other things to happen.
Intentionally underplaying or slanting
In a Do what you can to verify
that the shared interpretation
of events is actually shared
technique commonly known as spinning, Wanda presents a slanted view of the information she's disclosing.
Watch for "weasel words" — constructions that present an impression of substance, but which are unattributed, or so ambiguous, or so cleverly hedged that Wanda can later claim, "I never said that."
Hiding critical information in clouds of irrelevance
When Willis feels compelled to disclose something he'd rather withhold, he can bury it in other spew he doesn't mind revealing. For example, in claiming that he knew in advance that a certain wrong-headed decision should never have been made, he might not explicitly mention his own absence from the meeting that made that decision.
Clear away the fluff. Maintain a focus on the purpose of the exercise.
Withholding relevant information unless specifically requested
Here Wanda withholds a critical fact, and everything related to it, unless someone happens to probe for it.
Ask broad, random, open questions: "Does anyone know anything about any email messages that never arrived?" Spread a wide net that will oblige everyone with related information to speak up. Special safety measures might be required. For example, consider accepting anonymous responses.

I'm still gathering entries for this catalog. If you have candidates, rbrenBWKGABpgSKrNvxmoner@ChacsZwvZmrPJVqmQqUEoCanyon.comsend them along. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Meets Expectations  Next Issue

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Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded — or failed.

See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsAnd on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.

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