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Positive Outliers

Backwards Thinking

I like history… because it’s happened.

Clarissa Dickson Wright

Plans look forward.

Reviews look backward.

What’s happened has happened. In our culture of the urgent, we are apt to say, Forget it. Let’s move on. Today and tomorrow are more important.

However, is that really true? Is it even wise?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Of course, there are all kinds of things that will stop our deliberate, objective and critical reflection on what we have been doing. The culture of hustle and the tyranny of the urgent has no time for review.

When I worked as a project management consultant, I would find clients were intrigued to learn how organisations and their projects could significantly improve their performance over time by stewarding their lessons learned. Methods I taught began to emphasise the importance of documents such as the Lessons Learned Log.

What I saw in practice, however, was that there were few projects disciplined enough to record and review these lessons. Other matters were more urgent. Hurry drove them on. Tomorrow was more important, more malleable, under our control. Lessons were forgotten and lost. Spending time on preserving and reviewing lessons learned can seem like a bureaucratic luxury. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to that later when we have time. Right now we need to do this, and this and this!”

What if we were to shift our focus from planning to review?

What if we were to do something deeply counter-cultural? What if we were to shift our focus from planning to review? Most of us have never tried this in the context of chronic stress.

Let’s experiment. What is the worse that could happen? This might hold the key to thriving in these uncertain times–and not just for corporate projects; it could be the key to breakthrough with our personal work.

What we notice in our story so far matters.

What we notice in our story so far matters. It is our opportunity for learning and improving.

When we review, we can take one of four actions: we can affirm what we are doing, we can adjust our work, we can adapt it, or even abort it altogether.

Affirm: Steady as she goes

A brief check that everything is going as it should do gives us confidence. More than that we are rather more alert to external changes than if we continue hurtle headlong into the future with little regard for external threats and changes.

In his illuminating book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, surgeon and author Atul Gawande highlights how pausing before a critical execution by running through a simple checklist can have significant impacts on the overall outcome. And how did that checklist come about? It came through thousands of hours of accumulated experience, the experience that was valued by being studied, recorded, analysed for crucial patterns.

He highlights one case in point, where a global initiative to use surgical checklists on otherwise-routine surgery seemed to experience surgeons at first pedantic, tedious and unnecessary. Part of a particular checklist was for each member of the surgical team to introduce themselves by name before an operation.

Trivial, wouldn’t you think? Yet when introduced into a culture where female surgical nurses were not allowed to speak, it so empowered one nurse to speak out her name to the rest of the team that when the male surgeon was about to amputate the wrong limb, she spoke up and stopped him, telling him not to be so stupid!

Periodically reflecting has improved my personal workflows considerably.

The ritual of a review, from codified experience, begins to reveal all kinds of positive side effects as we take the next step, not least a greater confidence as we step forward.

Adjust: Course Corrections

The practice of review, of course, is not just for teams, projects and global initiatives. We can find that doing this on a personal level pays dividends, assuring us that we are building upon our past experience.

I have found, in my personal periodic reviews, reflecting on better ways to do something has improved my workflows considerably, saving precious hours and increasing my confidence as I work.

There is the illusion of precision when we see long projects as outside spectators.

During the Apollo Lunar programme, we might assume that the command module was sent with precision from the Earth’s orbit to the moon.

Not so. In fact, every few minutes, the crew needed to make thruster burns to adjust the craft towards the moon. It might appear that, instead, the command module with its lunar landing craft was more or less thrown in the general direction of the moon, a 1/4 million miles away, and there were regular course corrections throughout that journey.

There are moments of innovation when we realise that there is a better way…

We do this all the time when we reflect on the routines and workflows we use. And there are moments of innovation when we realise there is a better way of doing these things. The practice of reflection makes individuals more efficient.

Adapt: Borrowing from Other Areas

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Charles Caleb Colton

Many of the most innovative breakthroughs in science, engineering, education and medicine came when someone ‘borrowed’ an idea or example from somewhere else. David Epstein consistently illustrates this in his book, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

This is true in our own personal work. It might be a change in the medium we use. We might publish a long-form blog article. It attracts interest. So we use that to publish a book, which goes deeper and attracts that kind of audience.

It might be a change of audience or customer. We adapt a product for a different kind of customer and suddenly it becomes popular.

Caroline leads a counselling service to vulnerable and distressed members of the community. When COVID-19 lockdown first hit, she and her team obviously moved this online. This was adapting the medium.

However, she also began to access the power of deliberately activating joy through another online service. So, she adapted this product too,  so that she organising a daily ‘Well-being Workout’ for her team. The affective power of this has added an additional dimension to the results they are seeing with their clients, spilling over from her team.

In reality, there is never a formula or a methodology that will work in every context. There is no silver bullet. Self-aware leaders understand this. Adapt is the perspective of looking for examples from other areas, applying and modifying them appropriately into their context.

A review can shift us beyond mere efficiency to breakthrough and effectiveness.

This is where the practice of review contributes rather more than confidence and efficiency; it brings breakthrough and effectiveness.

Abort: Cutting Our Losses

Bad projects never die; they just go on draining resources long past their usefulness.

Practical People Engagement: Leading Change Through the Power of Relationships

Sometimes we learn that the work we are doing is not working, is not the best use of our time, and no longer connects with the dream or the purpose we had thought it might have done in the past.

Aborting something, though, can be pretty brutal, particularly if others are involved in the project with you. It sometimes invites an overwhelming sense of bereavement.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist, has identified a number of dangerous biases in our thinking when it comes to moments like this. He calls this one the sunk cost fallacy. Our attachment to a project is often rooted in all the effort and time and cost that has already gone into it. Rather than decide, rationally, that it is no longer working, there is that emotional part of us that is in a kind of denial, because we do not want to face up to the idea that it has all been for nothing. ‘Toughing through’ seems like good leadership. So we continue pumping more and more time, energy, and other resources into this dead duck.

No, sometimes, we can be more effective, more fruitful if our future is free of this liability. So we prune it off, for more growth.

Shifting our Focus is Key

This is one of the key areas where we can distinguish ourselves as creative professionals, in our teams and in our projects, particularly now in times of persistent and rabid uncertainty.

… particularly now in times of persistent and rabid uncertainty.

In conclusion, then, I believe that when we shift from an emphasis on planning to review, it is key for our thriving in uncertainty… in our self-motivation, in our projects, in our communities and across the world.

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