Learning on a Rollercoaster

One of my current clients needs to conduct a learning review from a 2-year IT project which, by her own admission, has had its fair share of ups and downs. The project is at its mid-point, so the main customer for the learning is the team itself. They don't have much time to conduct the review (sadly just 90 minutes), so she asked me for some ideas for pre-work  for the team. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of a full day to conduct an exhaustive review, so you have to work with what you have and help the team to quickly connect their hearts and minds to the review process.  It's the heart bit which interests me here.

When we're under time pressure, we tend to focus on the facts, the timeline, the plan, the process, contract, technology, scope and the deviations. Intellectual recall. In fact, most project review documents contain little more than this kind of intellectual recall. It usually takes a bit longer to get a team to talk about how they felt, and to draw out some the more people-oriented learning - let's call that a kind of "emotional recall".

I combined some ideas from Retrospects, After Action Reviews, Baton-passing and Future Backwards (Heaven and Hell) exercises into this approach. Enjoy the ride!

With thanks to Navcon
With thanks to Navcon

Part 1 - the pre-work:

Before the meeting, ask each member of the team to think back over the project timeline and to focus on their emotions at each stage. You can provide them with a template like this, with key dates or milestones marked to give a sense of orientation.

1. Ask them to sketch out their own "emotional rollercoaster", paying attention to the highs and lows.

2. For the high spots, write down what went well, and why you think it went well.

3. Do the same for the low spots. What was difficult, and why do you think that was?

4. How do you think the rollercoaster is most likely to continue?  Draw the continuing journey.  Bring this to the meeting with your notes on the reasons for the highs and lows.

Part 2 - during the meeting.

Sharing the Past and Present.

  • Collectively, in the meeting, create a large version of the rollercoaster timeline on the wall.
  • Each participant draws their journey up to the present day, pausing to describe the lows and highs, and the reasons for these.   A facilitator should probe these reasons using the "5-whys"  technique to get to the underlying reason.
  • For each high and low, ask the group to express the reason as a recommendation - something that someone else should do to repeat the delight, or avoid the despair - or an action which should be taken in order to change a process such that the good practice becomes embedded.
  • Capture these recommendations on post-its and place on the rollercoaster.
  • Repeat for each member of the project team (towards the end, they can "pass" if someone has already identified a high or low. )
  • This should create a shared view of the past, and "how we got to where we are today", with some useful recommendations captured. Consider who you might share these with beyond the team.

Creating the Future together.

  • Now ask each member to sketch how they think the project will go from now to the end date. You will probably get a range of options!
  • Focus on the best projected outcome and ask "based on all we've learned to date, what actions could we take to make this happen, rather than the less positive options?". You can take feedback from the entire group, or get them to discuss in pairs or sub-groups first.
  • Capture these actions (with names!).

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of the ride. Please be sure to collect your belongings as you leave and don't forget to check your photo on the way out.

Fifteen minutes of.... Reflection.

I secretly love the moment when the air stewardess utters those magic words:

"as we prepare for take-off, please turn off all electronic devices..."


Actually, I think the whole plane breathes a collective sigh of relief. Fifteen minutes of enforced separation from the electronic world of work.

Fifteen minutes at the downtime oasis between the instant your iPhone/Blackberry goes off, and the moment your laptop is allowed to be switched on. We're so always-on, info-stimulated, response-charged that it's a bit of a shock to the system. Once I've leafed through the in-flight magazine and perused the safety card, I confess I sometimes find myself nodding off!

Fifteen minutes. That’s the time typically allocated for After Action Reviews (AARs), at least for informal AARs, pioneered by the US Army and now a widely used knowledge management approach. Let’s take a deeper look at this classic, simple process and see why it provides such a welcome quarter of an hour of reflection and learning for a team.

Firstly, the name can create a level of confusion. Informal AARs take place immediately after an event or activity and are designed to provide a safe, honest, space for a team to review performance and identify the learning. In that respect, they are really a tool for learning-whilst-doing. You wouldn’t use this kind of AAR to review a major project in order to generate detailed narrative, lessons and recommendations for the next team. There are other KM methods in your toolbox for those situations – such as Project Reviews, Retrospects and Sensemaking techniques.

The climate for an AAR is important. The US Army describe those fifteen minutes as a “rank-free zone”. University College London’s “Learning Hospital” (to be featured in a future edition of Inside Knowledge), which is training hundreds of its staff as AAR facilitators describe the technique as making it possible to “speak the truth to power”. The ubiquity of AARs in the hospital make it safe for a junior technician to comment on and challenge the actions of the most eminent surgeon, because everybody understands the need for a climate of honesty when patients’ lives are at stake.

Having clarified the name and the climate, let’s take a look at the four simple questions which comprise an AAR. Simple enough to be remembered without a crib-sheet, and familiar enough that people know exactly where they are in the process.

AAR - 4 simple questions
AAR - 4 simple questions

Question one:“What was supposed to happen?” focuses on the facts This may sound surprising, but sometimes it can be difficult to even get agreement on the answers to this question!

Question two: “What actually happened?” – the US Army calls it “ground truth” – again, this is purely a statement of facts about what happened – not an exchange of opinions. Sometimes there are unexpected, positive things which happen in addition to the expected outcome – note these down too, as you might want to repeat those elements in the future.

Question three:“Why was there a difference?”. This is the time when the team can move from stating facts to giving their opinion as to the reasons for any differences; the facilitator uses the time wisely to ensure that contributions are made from as many team members as possible, and discussed where necessary.

Question four: “What can we learn from this?”. This is the most important question, as it is the one most likely to identify what needs to change. It moves the team from reflection to action, and make a difference to the next time they attempt a similar task.

So that’s it. Four simple questions, addressed rapidly by the team with the facilitator (a team member) capturing a brief record on a flipchart to keep the focus on shared opinions and actions. All in all, a straightforward technique. The power of AARs comes in the structure; the slowing-down effect of the four questions. Let’s face it, as intelligent professionals, we like to think we have a pretty good idea about what the learning points are, even before we’ve discussed it. AARs are designed to stop people just like us from bypassing steps i, ii and iii and jumping to conclusions as to what the learning was, without having verified that there is agreement about what actually happened.

In our always-on world, where we re-tweet things around the globe before we’ve even read them, and connect with people we barely know – fifteen minutes to slow down, reflect and think – together - is invaluable. Now... where did that duty-free magazine go?

Taken from the Consulting Collison column in the next edition of Inside Knowledge

The heAARt of the Learning Hospital...

I had the opportunity to visit University College London Hospital (UCLH) last week (but not as a patient!).  Two years ago I blogged about their visions to become University College Learning Hospital, and the efforts that they were making to introduce  After Action Reviews into the culture of the Hospital.  Two years later, they have developed their Learning Hospital – an environment where full simulations  - administrative, board meetings, clinical situations  - could be carried out with actors.

Being an AAR ConductorThis very real experience is then the basis for staff to conduct after action reviews, to be videoed, review and discuss with their colleagues, together with the Learning Hospital expert staff.  So far, 400 staff have become “AAR Conductors”, carrying out reviews in a variety of situations.

I was struck by the sheer quality of the Learning Hospital and also their innovative marketing approach.  I liked the take-off of “being John Malkovich”,  in which a selection of AAR Conductors had their fifteen minutes of fame.

It's a real credit to Steve Andrews and Professor Aidan Halligan - and I'm not doing them justice in such a short blog.  I'll  write  a more considered piece with them and post it in the future...

Of all the marketing posters though, I loved the IKEA After Action Review instructions the most - perhaps because I could identify with them so well!


Inspired, Steve!   The US Army would be proud of you!

Bridge-building in Bangalore

I had the pleasure last week of spending two days in Bangalore with Robert Bosch India Ltd, running a number of seminars and workshops on different aspects of Knowledge Management.  One of the highlights was a bridge-building exercise designed by Learning to Fly co-author Geoff Parcell, during which the participants apply the principles of learning before, during and after, and captured knowledge to demonstrate an improvement in performance.

The picture below shows the new record span in this exercise – congratulations to the associates at Robert Bosch!

It was my first trip to India, and, although I was warned to be ready for an “assault on the senses”, and it certainly was – especially the traffic. I’m still getting over it – a whole new take on choas and complexity…

What struck me most though, was the insatiable appetite for learning and improvement demonstrated by my companions for the two days.  Robert Bosch India is already a strong performer in knowledge management, but their dissatisfaction with “good”, and unswerving desire for “great” made them a charmingly demanding client to spend time with.  There aren’t many companies in the West who could fill a conference room at 18.30 on a Friday evening for a two hour seminar on”creating a learning culture”.  Watch out Buckman Labs and Novo Nordisk…

Lights, Camera, (after) Action (review)!

I spent a fascinating day last week with some senior NHS clinical staff at a Leadership Development Centre in Leicester. From the outside, the building looks like any other office in the city, and as you go past the smart reception, it still looks relatively familiar, although signs pointing to areas like "Narrative Centre" hint at a something out of the ordinary. Then, turning the corner and pushing though a pair of double doors, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an NHS hospital ward, - it even has that disinfectant-like smell like a hospital ward! This one, however is devoid of any staff or patients, but has a number of hidden cameras. Kind of like Big Brother meets ER. In fact, it was built by the same company that constructs the set for the British medical drama-soap, Holby City.

This elaborate and incredibly lifelike environment has been built as part of an "immersive" senior management development programme. Professional role-players act out scenarios involving the real professional staff - often tough, highly emotional scenes, whilst the other delegates observe the video relay, debrief and discuss . Speaking with some of the participants, they were all amazed at how quickly they found themselves "believing" what was happening during the role plays.

My role was to provide some input relating to After Action Reviews (AARs), and to use the role-plays to help the clinicians translate this input into real life - well, it felt real to us!

I was really struck by the power of simulation in learning - we don't use this nearly enough in business. I was also really encouraged that parts of the NHS are sufficiently progressive to develop their senior staff through such innovative approaches - and are committed to learning-whilst-doing.

Holby City