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LEARNING FROM LOOKING FORWARDS

The arrival of a new year marks a turning point, a prompt to pause and ponder what lies ahead. But often, by the end of Q1, resolutions are long-forgotten and our focus is occupied with immediate demands. The problem is, being constantly anchored in the present seriously limits our ability to learn and enhance performance.

Whilst many high performing businesses have effective postmortem or ‘after action review’ processes, often in-depth postmortems 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).

Applying this to our own practice, we looked at our recently completed delivery of a global programme for over 1,000 participants in 20 different locations over 3 months: on face value, being a big success for the client and ourselves, it’s tempting to enter into a short phase of self and peer congratulation and then move on to the next project. However, as is wonderfully articulated in Matthew Syed’s new book ‘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 premortems to anticipate where potential challenges and obstacles might lie. The premortem 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.

Don’t wait for a project failure before making changes. Review successes with as much detail as failures, identify the conditions required to replicate success, and hone the capability to conduct effective premortems so that teams can change before they have to.

  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 Premortem. Harvard Business Review. September: 18–19.

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