Ed Hoffman’s Director’s column (“Thinking About Excellence”) and Laurence Prusak’s Knowledge Notebook piece (“How Does a Learning Organization Learn?”) make related points that define key themes of this issue of ASK. Hoffman notes that excellence comes from paying attention to the experience of real work—learning from reflection on successes and mistakes. He suggests that learning and excellence tend to be the product of group, not individual, effort. Prusak also emphasizes the social and experiential nature of learning. People learn with and from each other; the learning that “sticks” is what they need to know to do their jobs well.
Many of the articles here touch on the value of learning from experience and the importance of being open and attentive to what experience teaches. In the interview, Michael Coats talks about applying lessons he learned as an astronaut to his work as Director of Johnson Space Center and also about learning from veterans of the Apollo era by inviting them back for conversation and consultation. David Oberhettinger describes a process developed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory to ensure that the lessons of experience are not only recognized but influence future behaviors. recognizing that making use of the wisdom of experience is often a tougher problem than capturing it, his Lessons Learned Committee emphasizes “infusing” valuable lessons into practices to make them part of how people work.
One of the barriers to learning is people’s understandable reluctance to admit mistakes (compounded by an even stronger disinclination to talk about them). But mistakes are great teachers, and effective project teams and learning organizations find ways to make examining them acceptable. Wernher von Braun biographerBob Ward says that von Braun gave a bottle of champagne to an engineer who revealed that he had made the mistake that destroyed a Redstone rocket. This reward—and, even more, the absence of punishment—was an important signal that encouraged others to be open about errors. Von Braun attributed his German scientists’ expertise to the fact that they had more years to make mistakes than their American counterparts. So it is not surprising that Vern Weyers’ analysis of the characteristics of outstanding project managers includes openness and a determination to recognize and deal with problems as soon as they become evident. Ignored problems never go away; they get worse. Stephen Denning’s “Challenging Complacency” is a more systemic look at strategies that can help organizations look at uncomfortable truths and risks that successful, results-oriented organizations tend to ignore.
Learning is an aspect of most of the project stories in this issue. The Genesis team made sure that what they learned about the causes of the crash landing of their vehicle was communicated to the Stardust team (where it influenced their re-entry preparations). The Stardust project itself was characterized by openness and communication that fostered group learning and problem-solving. (HyTEx showed a similar spirit, with clarity about roles and responsibilities contributing to cooperation.) Clarity and openness foster trust, which, as Prusak notes, also contributes to an effective learning environment.