Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Forgetting Organization

Many years ago, I took a series of courses adapted from Peter Senge's book "The Fifth Discipline." The hallmark of that book was a concept called "the learning organization," which posited that to be adaptable in an environment of constant change, companies had to nurture and support the learning impulses in all their employees.

While I really enjoyed the courses (and over the past decade have grown to appreciate them more), I grew frustrated by our company's inability to learn from our experiences. We made the same mistakes again and again.

With the gallows humor familiar to anyone who works for a very large, slowly-changing company, I started calling us "The Forgetting Organization."

Twelve years on, not much has changed. January's Harvard Business Review features "The Experience Trap" (link - $$) by Kishore Sengupta, Tarek K. Abdel-Hamid, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove. In simulations performed with software project managers, the authors discovered that even experienced project managers made similar mistakes--for example, bringing on staff too late in the project--again and again, in different projects. Rather than learning from what had gone wrong in Project 1, the PMs did much the same in Project 2, and 3, and so on.

Sengupta et. al. attribute this forgetting to several factors: (1) the disjoint and time-lagged relationship between cause and effect, (2) conflict between initial plan and long-term goal when conditions change and (3) the fallibility of initial estimates (and people's tendency to hang onto those far past their useful lives).

In other words, software projects, like so much of the high-value work in business today, operates in the complex domain. The authors prescribe a set of practices to help companies suffering from "the experience trap," but a simple recognition of the environment that people are working in, and training and reinforcing awareness of that fact, could help workers learn more.

Or, in other words, to forget less.

(Note: I also mentioned the above story in a previous post.)

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