Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 1;   January 4, 2017: More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

by

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, rbreniyXhgToQYiqymRJVner@ChaceKPlMjzmULuIqEeUoCanyon.comsend them along. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Meets Expectations  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenbMbwcYXCClXAMwlZner@ChacWpUTuuEfHKYOFbGHoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The inaccessible cubicles at Diamond SquareMake a Project Family Album
Like a traditional family album, a project family album has pictures of people, places, and events. It builds connections, helps tie the team together, and it can be as much fun to look through as it is to create.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, AlaskaNonlinear Work: Internal Interactions
In this part of our exploration of nonlinear work, we consider the effects of interactions between the internal elements of an effort, as distinguished from the effects of external changes. Many of the surprises we encounter in projects arise from internals.
Industrial robots assembling automobilesUnnecessary Boring Work: Part I
Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
Three simple carabinersTeam Risks
Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install corrective optics during the Hubble Telescope's Service Mission 1How We Waste Time: Part I
Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share, but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeComing April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016And on April 12: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen? Available here and by RSS on April 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqyPitfQLTGTIuGHNner@ChacwQIUuMxauqYbWkaQoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.