When we were little and touched the hot burner on the stove, we got searing feedback that instantly told us we’d made a poor decision. So the next time we were tempted to touch the stove, we thought better of it.
We all know how learning works, but as we grow up, the distance between decisions and their consequences widens and becomes more complex. The lessons learned become far less obvious. That’s why organizations often make the same mistakes over and over again. No one is spending any energy to figure out why.
There’s a relatively easy fix to this—dedicating time to reflecting on what everyone learned, good and bad. But how do you build in time for reflection when you and your colleagues are speeding through the workday at 90 MPH just trying to get everything done?
Here are some tips for completing that “learning loop” and helping to turn your team into one that’s always moving forward.
1. Make a “Lessons Learned” Meeting a Required Part of Any Project Plan
Set the expectation up front that your team will devote time to go over everything they learned from executing a new project. When you’re working hard to make deadlines, it’s much easier to commit to a scheduled event than it is to gather the lessons learned on the fly–or worse, never discuss them at all.
2. Make Reflection a Product as Well as a Process
Many companies describe themselves as having “a bias toward action.” In these cultures, doing something (i.e., returning a tangible product) is preferable to doing nothing (i.e., just sitting around and talking about it). This attitude makes reflection a tough sell for an employee, or even a leader—so turn it into a product that can be referenced in the future. Use tools like a SWOT or SOAR analysis to get you started. Archive and publish your results to your team or company. Suddenly, your reflection is a product!
3. Formalize a Role for Capturing the Lessons
Make it a responsibility just like any other team duty. If you’re the team leader, be sure to check in with your employees regularly and maintain a dialog about what the team has learned. This can be as simple as “what has and hasn’t worked well,” or as robust as populating a knowledge management database.
4. Make it a Retreat
Sometimes things are just clearer when you get out of your everyday routine and immerse yourself in different surroundings. Make a day (or a half-day) of it and give your team enough notice to plan around it. Pick one or two of your team’s most significant projects to review. Start by revisiting the original goals of the project and assess how they evolved during the course of the work. If the project is complete, ask your team members if they feel the goals were met—and if not, what was left undone? Then ask your team, “If we all went back in time to the day the project started, but knowing what we know now, what would we do differently?”
Reflection retreats for your team don’t need to be expensive, high-intensity affairs, either. Some alternatives to traditional meeting spaces include getting your team together in a local coffee shop or pub one afternoon, or simply booking a different floor or conference room in your office building.
5. Build in Reflection Time Little by Little
Perhaps you can’t see devoting a whole meeting to discovering lessons learned. That’s OK. Instead, tack on 10 minutes at the end of each team meeting for reflection, asking things like, “What skills did you have to learn or grow in order to complete this task?” or “What should we document now so that we remember it next time we tackle a similar project?”
Just be sure to manage your meeting well enough that you don’t have to shortchange your small amount of dedicated time–after all, that will send the wrong message to your team.
Whichever method you choose, the important part is making sure that your team learns to take the time for reflection. Work hard to make it into a habit, and don’t sacrifice it when other work comes up. Eventually, everyone will see the value in the investment.