Friday, May 30, 2014

“Post Mortems” Are Essential to Optimizing Productivity

Clearly the source of some things you pick up so naturally early in your career gets lost over time.

Somewhere between graduating from college and having a hand in community marketing startups in Spokane in the 1970s and Anchorage in the 1980s, I adopted the practice of always conducting group “post mortems” after projects were completed.

By the time of my last DMO startup for Durham, North Carolina, the practice of “post mortems” was a central feature.

This is where co-workers gather after a project (on average 50% of any job is project-related – 100% in DMOs) to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work as well as lessons-learned.

To the consternation of a few co-workers who always resisted this practice, usually because they couldn’t seem to help but take everything personally, reflection such as this is the subject of some new research studies.

Repeatedly required during these sessions was “this isn’t about who, but what!”

I suspect I adopted “post mortems” from something I read in the 1970s by or about EST founder Werner Erhard while powering through the briefcase of “airplane reading” I always had handy.

Erhard was a very serial social entrepreneur and deep thinker about the processes of management and productivity. With no Internet in those days, I would read voraciously and then tear some articles out for further study when I could give it my full attention.

Anchorage back then was still attached at the hip with Seattle, or so Seattle seemed to think it its entitled manner.  It was a three hour flight there, four hours to San Francisco, 7+ hours to New York or Tokyo and 9+ hours to London, all of which I was required to travel to in those days on business, often on short turn arounds.

Even a simple round trip flight just to the state capital in Juneau took nearly three hours.

I got through a ton of reading either attending coop marketing planning meetings for the state or opening up new inbound markets specific to Anchorage.

I also burned out on business travel during my near-decade there but have to admit it also provided time for much needed reflection.

Durham, where I spent the remainder of my career is the center of a four-county metro designation that includes Chapel Hill.  Each community is home base to a noted business school.

I won’t make the mistake a DMO exec made several weekends ago when referring to her community as overflow for Duke without bothering to mention Duke is not in Chapel Hill or identifying other hotels in her comments were also actually in Durham.

She obviously forgot that the DMO’s in this part of North Carolina have a written agreement to ethically restrict comments to their specific destination and refer media to others for information in those communities.

I am sure there will be a conference-call “post mortem” to reconnect the dots.  Some DMOs, seemingly bored with destination marketing, always seem prone to mind the business of others places and in doing so, undermine their own.

Often they use the term “regional” as cover, which is pretentious and probably means they are simply in the wrong business.

Chapel Hill is home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina, one of 16 in that system overall.

Dr. Bradley Staats who teaches in the Kenan-Flagler Business School there and lives in nearby Carrboro is the co-author of a working paper detailing a series of studies reviewed recently by Carmen Nobel on Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” forum.

The studies confirm the importance of individual and group reflection to learning.  Most research focuses on “doing” but this study confirms that reflection on work or “unpacking” creates incredible value-added.

We learn not just by doing but through reflection.  Because there is a tendency in any fast paced organization to move to quickly to the next thing, setting aside time for what I learned to call “post mortems” to glean lessons learned is crucial.

I certainly found it to be an essential ingredient to our ability to leapfrog much more established organizations,  I also found failing to do so seem to condemn other organizations to stubborn feedback loops that inhibited growth.

Individual and group reflection on a project is also how we learn to adapt our behavior and overcome the stubbornness and ego-centrism that holds so many back in the workplace or in relationships with peers.

“Go to your room” as my parents often required when I was growing up was just the beginning of self-reflection.  Once everyone had cooled down, the indispensible ingredient to learning was “unpacking” the issue or issues involved with the parent or parents involved.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen and lessons-learned get truncated.  Home is where we should first learn that “it isn’t about who, but what!” These are the building blocks of conflict resolution.

Without the second part, learning, and therefore performance, isn’t optimized regardless of what stage of life your are in, especially in the workplace.

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