Sometimes we focus a little too much on just getting stuff done or starting the exciting new projects. We forget to stand back and think about how it worked last time, how we could do things better, or how our understanding has changed.
Taking the time to reflect on making it better next time is a classic challenge in knowledge management and continuous improvement circles. We're talking about both single-loop and double-loop learning. Single-loop is improving the tools (or changing tools) to address a given situation. Double-loop learning is rethinking the situation itself, usually based on the experiences we had thus far. Can the entire situation be reframed to achieve a greater improvement than the smaller tweaks of single-loop learning? We need to do both. (Here is an overview of Chris Agyris' work on the topic of single- and double-loop learning and other items.)
I'm thinking of this, thanks to a blog post from Nick Milton on the topic, Protected time for KM - the time dimension of Ba. He talks about this challenge from the perspective of Nonaka's Ba concept.
"But what do you talk about?" we asked. It turned out that they talk about progress, about issues, about plans, but never about what has been learned, or what needs to be learned. "Why don't you ever talk about learning?" we asked them. "Oh, we are too busy for that" they said. "We used to have meetings with other teams to find out what they were doing and why, but we got too busy and stopped that". So there used to be "safe time" (Ba) for learning from each other, but it was not protected, and it vanished.
The issue in a busy company is not physical space; it's protected time.
Why do these kinds of things get dropped? Why don't organizations protect time for learning?
One thought: People often don't see immediate returns from these discussions. The single-loop tweaks are often lost amongst all the other stuff that is going on. And there are big assumptions that "we are doing the best that we can," so proposed big improvements are looked upon with some skepticism. And of course, there is the claim that "we are too busy" that gets in the way of just about anything. This can be translated as, "We are too busy to do anything different from what we are comfortable doing."
What can be done? Many process improvement ideas explicitly call for a regular review to check that the technique itself is working. Getting Things Done has a weekly review. Kanban has a weekly review. Lean has the idea of kaizen, continually reviewing and improving. Making the time to explicitly review and think about doing things better is central to these methodologies. Can it become part of your way of doing things?
Beyond this, there are the less-frequent "big" reviews that various approaches suggest. Monthly or quarterly reviews of the numbers are great, but we also need to include "how is X working for us" discussions. And discussions of what we see now that we may not have seen previously. How are we going to do things differently as a result? (Do we need to?)
Make the time to think. It will pay dividends, both now and in the future.
[Photo: "The Passage of Time" by TonyVC]