Tag Archives: learning

Experience versus Vitality and Innovation

Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard & Chris Smalling

‘Experience’ is an often-quoted strength in a job candidate or team member.

If this is relevant to the work that needs to be done, then great. However the term experience is often read as ‘knowledge’ and that is not always the case. An experienced person may refer back to situations that are not relevant to the present. An experienced person may rely on apoproaches which are not the best, but which merely work ‘OK’.

An experienced person’s views may now be out of date. In the 1960s a Japanese delegation visited a British car factory in the midlands and were guided around the operation by a proud production manager. The visitors had many questions about the facility and how it worked but felt they were not being given the answers that they wanted. One of the Japanese vistors asked the manager ‘How long have you worked in this factory?‘ to which the manager answered ‘Over 20 years!‘.

The Japanese visitor was oveheard to mutter ‘more like 20 minutes…

The manager did not know what was really happening in the production facility – they did not have relevant knowledge, nor an understanding of how to improve the work or quality of output.

A valuable, experienced professional is one who has the humility (and experience!) that allows them to ask the right questions and not to be the source of all the answers.


MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

360◦ feedback – when it might not be very helpful

360 feedback360◦ feedback is an often cited ‘best practice’ model for enabling people to understand how well they perform, what they need to do more of and what they need to improve. Like any method, it needs to be checked to see whether it will work (i.e deliver its intended purpose) and whether it is the best way of achieving that purpose (e.g. are there any unwanted side-effects?). In the case of 360◦ feedback these questions are rarely asked- the first concerns are usually practical (who can give the feedback, how do we collate it) – 360◦ feedback is de facto a ‘good thing’, isn’t it?

Nevertheless it is worth stepping back and considering whether the 360◦ approach is:

(i) helpful and (ii) effective…?

One issue with 360◦ – which you will never find on a 360◦ website (for obvious reasons) is that it is based on judgement and opinion. There is the old adage that “opinion+opinion+opinion=opinions”, in other words any combination of opinions will not necessarily be the truth. This is of course also the case whether you get friend or foe to give you the feedback! For this reason, a lot of people would say ‘don’t bother’.

In fact there is a strong case for the ‘don’t bother to give feedback at all’ viewpoint. It is a question of measurement and assign-ability. What is the feedback measuring? In a stable system 90-95% of performance is due to the system, in other words is not assignable to the individual (Deming 1993). This means that feedback given to the individual will be at best only scratching 5% of what people do. In essence “faults, weaknesses and dereliction of individuals is not the primary door for improvement” – its more effective to work on improving processes and systems (Coens and Jenkins 2000).

(Note: in an unstable system all the feedback should be directed at the boss anyway, not the worker – that is worth a separate blog in itself).

 Timeliness of feedback is important: it should relate to specific behaviours for which impact is known and to which the receiver of the feedback can choose to respond to get a different effect. (Coens and Jenkins 2000). Good feedback needs to be delivered in a personal and interactive manner and from a person who is seen as credible. People naturally tend to rationalise feedback from other human beings (Coens and Jenkins 2000, Jacobs 2009), so anonymous feedback can be easily rejected or seen as invalid.

There is a strong argument that where a person is not prepared to/cannot give the feedback face-to-face, then they shouldn’t bother. If they CAN give the feedback face-to-face, they should take responsibility for it but also be prepared for it to be ignored or contested (and take responsibility for the other person’s reaction – anger, tears, hurt, laughter, responsiveness). The best teams are those where this type of discussion is normal, expected and conducted in a good spirit of trust and collegiality.

There is another clue in the usefulness of any method: what ‘checks and balances’ do people have to put on the system to ensure that it is fair on people? If you need to place a ‘system to police the system’ (i.e. who gives the feedback) then , inevitably you will need to  have a system to  police the police who are policing the system and so on…If any answer is forthcoming that suggests that the method is not impartial, robust or trustworthy – and generates too much work!

It is better to keep feedback down to face-to-face discussion, you simplify it because people take responsibility for the whole. Make sure people know how to give and receive feedback; what, how, when, where, why. Ensure a culture where informal conversations about the work and how it can be improved become the norm. Increase the value of dialogue and discussion on how to improve things within meetings (and move beyond discussion of reporting and giving feedback).


Coens and Jenkins (2000) Abolishing Performance Appraisals: why they backfire and what to do instead, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. Penguin Group Portfolio, NY


Initiating Change…and making it happen

Change can be a threatening experience for people

The autumn brings a cycle of change; in temperate zones it is a shifting of the seasons when people traditionally reset themselves for the challenges of the coming year after the pleasures and abundances of the summer.The harvest is securely stored, now the ground must be prepared for the next year’s crops.

In organizations it is a milestone which sets off a new sales season, a refreshed programme of activity, a new intake of students, or  preparations for a new budget.

It is a good time to have  mental ‘re-fresh’ to consider what ‘CHANGE is all about.

Peter Senge (1990) suggests a number of principles in initiating change:

(i) there must be a compelling case for change;

(ii) there must be time to change;

(iii) help must be provided during the change process

(iv) there is a need to keep an eye open to new barriers after initial roadblocks have been removed.

When we make change happen, we need to recognise that, as carefully as we might plan it, we must be poised to learn and adapt to outcomes. Even if plans are thorough, they will always be based to some degree upon assumption – and those same assumptions and expectations might change as we gain more knowledge when we put things into action on the ground.

symbols various

  • • Assumptions can be made about purpose , the reason for being at our place of work
    – we should always test ourselves by asking ‘why are we doing this?’
  • • Assumptions can be made about people, what they do well, or when they make mistakes
    – without understanding the constraints they face; a ‘people problem’ or something else?
  • • Assumptions can be made about good performance, and reasons to celebrate
    – without knowing the true cost of that performance; is it sustainable?
  • • Assumptions can be made about one-off failures, or chronic repeating failures
    – without knowing which is which, nor the underlying causes of their occurrence
  • • Assumptions can be made about cause and effect, and implementing solutions
    – without understanding potential unintended consequences.

The best way of overcoming assumptions is to talk to people to identify things to examine; then to examine those things (by getting useful data); then evaluate the outcomes of our examination; then identify what to act upon and how – Plan-Do-Check-Act (starting at ‘Check’).

We must get better at using knowledge, and distance ourselves from rhetoric and assumption. This is done by understanding the system we work in, how to properly measure its performance, and what we can do about it with careful experimentation.

There is a neat way to define the power of working on the system, versus the expectations placed on people; it sends a message to anyone wanting to improve the way things work in their team. This quote is, I understand, attributed to Geary Rummler:

“Put a good performer in a bad system – and the system wins every time.”

In other words, don’t go around trying to change people; instead put effort into changing the system, and get your people involved in initiating the change…and making it happen.


Further reading:

Rummler G. and Bache A. (1995) Improving Performance: how to manage the white space in the organization chart. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

The beauty of learning – nothing is wasted

Spider WebThe term ‘learning organisation’ first gained popularity in the 1990s and is, unusually in the faddish world of  ‘management-speak’, one which seems to have endured. What is a ‘learning organisation’ and why try to become one?

An organisation that learns is best able to adapt. It finds out what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, does something with that knowledge.

However, a learning organisation doesn’t just accrue information. Some organisations appear to be addicted to data – searching for the ‘facts’ before decisions can be made. This is NOT a characteristic of  a learning organisation since it will cause one of two problems (or both): either the organisation will boil itself to death in trivia and noise and not pick up the important signals;  or statically churn data without adapting – paralysis by analysis. This is not learning.

A definitive feature about learning is that it involves proactively seeking out knowledge; to make good judgements based on insight. If we want people in our team, department or organisation to start learning, then we should steer them towards good judgements based on insights from analysis. The statement ‘costs are out of control’ is an opinion. However, if we define costs and out of control, we can then test that hypothesis and progress in our understanding (Scholtes 1998). This requires new disciplines of thought. For Deming, part of this transformation is about getting managers to see themselves as experimenters who lead learning.

The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)
The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)

A good way to represent this type of approach is the Deming Wheel (or Shewhart Cycle, as Deming labelled it) Plan-Do-Study-Act; the never-ending cycle of learning (Scholtes 1998). Deming called for a change from ‘opinions’ to hypotheses which we can test, understand and then apply to our work activities.

Scholtes explains the phases of learning. ‘Plan’ and ‘Act’ are the stages of developing and reviewing theories and hypotheses. ‘Do’ and ‘Study’ are about application – work and the examination of work and outcomes. The phases of thinking and doing are intrinsically linked.

“There is nothing as practical as a good theory”
Kurt Lewin

Further Reading:

Drejer, A. (2000)”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.


Other references:

Lewin, K. (1952) Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, p. 346. London: Tavistock.