Are We Having Fun Yet?

By Geof Lory

This article is about closure. Bringing things full circle. Finally being done. Punishing the innocent and promoting the guilty. However it works at your organization, success or failure, something can be celebrated and learned from every project. To miss this opportunity would compound the failure or minimize the success. Yet I am surprised at how few organizations deliberately perform some sort of retrospective after major milestones or at least the completion of a project. It is an essential part of a learning organization to be deliberate about learning. Building the time into schedules and processes to learn is the evidence you are serious about improving.

I wonder if there is an assumption that learning happens as a by-product of experience and doesn't require careful examination or consideration. Certainly, some amount of individual learning does take place with each experience. It may even contribute to the sixth sense some intuitive project managers have. However, endowing the rest of the organization with that ad hoc hunch learning will not happen without explicitly attending to what was learned in the experience.

Last December the girls spent their Christmas vacation at their mother's on the east coast. Traveling over the holiday was an anxious event for them. It was further complicated by the increased travel restrictions for unaccompanied minors due to the September 11th disaster. I had flown several times since then and was accustomed to the longer lines and additional security, but they were not. They had some learning to experience.

As they prepared for the trip, I explained the additional wait times, which are never comfortable for kids, or for parents when they are with kids. I suggested we allow additional time for these complications, which would only be further exacerbated by the number of holiday travelers. (I re-read my article on risk management as a refresher.) Unfortunately, this idea fell on deaf ears as they balked at the thought of spending two hours at the airport with Dad doing nothing.

After parking the car and getting into a long ticketing line (unaccompanied minors were not allowed to use e-ticketing), we still had an hour before take off. As the line inched slowly forward, their urgency level and anxiety began to rise. We began to discuss options, none of which were feasible or affordable. They were even praying that the flight would get delayed. We got our tickets and seats with only 15 minutes before take-off, but still had to go through the security checkpoint. With only minutes to go, they passed the detectors but, as luck would have it, I got stopped for a search. I threw them a kiss and told them to go to the gate without me. I arrived at the gate out of breath only to yell "good-bye" as they were closing the ramp door behind them.

Needless to say, even though they did make the flight, this was not how any of us wanted to start the holiday vacation. That night, when their plane landed safely at Boston's Logan airport, they called to let me know they were safely there, but their luggage was not. They would have to return to the airport tomorrow, a two-hour drive, to retrieve their luggage on the next flight.

I wanted to issue the proverbial "I told you so!" but bit my tongue instead. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the lesson was learned, but just to be sure I asked them:
"What do you think went well at the airport today?"
"What do you think did not go well at the airport today?" and
"What would it have looked like if it had gone ideally?"

This quick postmortem confirmed the lesson was learned and that the next trip would allow for ample time to avoid a missed flight.

I suspect an additional element contributes to our neglect of project retrospectives: the discomfort of facing our own shortcomings. Few people look for opportunities to put their inadequacies on display in front of their peers or, worse, supervisors. If everything went absolutely perfectly on a project, I'm pretty sure we would be tripping over each other to organize the mutual admiration event to celebrate our excellence. What we would learn was what we did well. While that is good to acknowledge and it's great to consciously reinforce successful behaviors, it is only the most comfortable portion of the learning.

Setting the stage for safe learning, where actions -- not people --are examined and improved, is key to eliciting quality ideas for learning and improvement. Asking the team to invent a future-oriented scenario eliminating or minimizing the shortcomings causes two things: Team members take a personal interest in creating the solutions to their problems, side-stepping resistance from the "not-invented-here" mindset; and their energy is channeled forward by acknowledging past deficiencies as learning experiences that add value to overall development.

Every year since Beth and I have known each other, we have spent a week in August at a resort in northern Minnesota with her family. This past year we decided to try a new resort in Wisconsin. After the second day it was apparent that the amenities available to the kids were not what they had been used to at the other resort, and their attitude reflected their boredom. They insisted that the old resort was better.

So I told them that if they were interested in having a better experience next year at a resort that met more of their expectations, I would need them to conduct a postmortem on this year's vacation. I simply asked them to list the things they liked and the things they didn't like about each resort on a separate sheet. And then on a third sheet, write down the features of the ideal vacation spot.

I was impressed by their level of detail and candor, stating things they liked and disliked about each place. I was even more interested to see the items on their list that made up their ideal vacation spot and the excitement it created as they thought about next year. When we got home, I asked Erika to type up their results and send them to me so I could share them with their aunts and uncles as part of the selection of next year's vacation.

There is one necessary caution when you do a forward-focused retrospective: Expectations that the team's voice will be heard and change will take place need to be managed effectively. One of the items on the girls' list for their ideal vacation spot was that it has lots of cute guys their age. I was quick to point out that while this may be one of their desires, it was not within my control, or interest, to meet that expectation. As such it would not be considered when selecting next year's spot.

Unfortunately, that change is inevitable, but I have managed to delay it a little.

[This is the final article in a series. Members can review the previous articles - Just Do It!, A Man with a Plan, Conscious Parenting Mindset, Are We There Yet?, and Go With the Flow in our column archives. ]

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