Innovation = Creativity + Risk + Forgiveness?

If you’ve been in a change role for more than six months, you’ve heard of this insidious thing known as “lessons learned”. Personally, I hate the process and while I understand the goals and the intent, execution often falls woefully short. It’s akin to getting your final report card at the end of senior year of high school; I suppose it’s a nice keepsake, but when’s the last time you looked at it or took anything away from it other than evidence that you’d completed high school?


Right now you must be asking yourself: “I thought this posting was about innovation, what does it have to do with lessons learned and post-project reviews?”

Very simply, it has to do with forgiveness and how it’s the opposite of the blame game / “all things must be done perfectly the first time around or punished if not” approach. I’m going to skip digging too far into the “creativity” and “risk” parts of the equation this time around; that’s a well-beaten path already.

I find the post-project review / lessons learned (“PPR/LL” going forward) to be an activity that promotes the following types of (potentially unconscious) thinking:

  1. Let’s not take any real risks because if it goes wrong, we’ll have to explain it and I don’t think we can bear that risk (politically)
  2. We don’t have enough time to get it done perfectly right the first time, so let’s not do it at all

So either people give a half-hearted effort or they don’t make an effort at all. Furthermore, whereas your high school report card can often be buried underneath the mattress in your childhood bedroom, if you stick around a company, and with the not completely unfair focus these days on “hard evidence” when it comes to performance reviews, the PPR/LL can really come back to haunt you.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the intent and goals are positive from PPR/LL. How can we adjust that process to support innovation rather than stifle it? Here are some ideas.

1. This tape will self-destruct in 30 seconds…29…28…
Standard spy movie fare, but after the hero gets the tape with mission orders or some key information, it self-destructs. They have just enough time to absorb the important facts and then beat a path away so that they can focus on fulfilling their mission and not getting bogged down in extraneous details.

Now, as a finance professional, I am in no way supporting the destruction of records and data…except I am.

Gather the team together. Focus on the real facts of things. There is no need to write out a detailed action / remediation plan to every single item; let’s face it, they will never be executed on.

Draw attention to what really matters and make sure everyone absorbs that, and then focus them on the next project where if that information has been properly drummed in, each individual team member will check themselves and potentially avoid a repeat.

Then get rid of the report or at least bury it in a dusty archive to only be unearthed after a few more projects have been started, stopped, and/or finished. Why wait? For our next point…

2. Patterns do not exist in isolation
I love that statement and I use it all the time because it’s true. One project does not exemplify a set of behaviors or show a culture. A number of projects over time start to make it evident what are the things that being done that are right and the things that are being done which are wrong. And, the combination of that can point to the underlying fundamentals which can be tweaked, because results are merely symptoms and should be treated as suspiciously as such.

Still, there’s one more reason why waiting is worthwhile.

3. Time heals all wounds
Anyone who has worked with me, and my friends in my personal life, recognize that I get worked up about things. I get passionate, I start tossing around “value bombs” like “this is unacceptable” or “this is not how we do business” or “this is untenable” — and I mean them!

At the time. My distemper is often situational: I get upset because I am invested and I do care, but it’s not personally meant. And, very soon after, I can say to someone who I was nose-to-nose with fifteen minutes ago: “Alright, job done, let’s go for a pint.” Or, with my friends, I’ve been irritated or annoyed at something they did, but two days later, it’s over and done with, and I’ve moved on. I don’t hold grudges; I let things go quickly.

The truth is, though, most people are not like that. They are less quick to let their blood boil, visibly, but they are also less quick to let it go. When it comes to the PPR/LL process, we’d like to believe it is a clinical thing, obviously sterile and professional and not personally meant–

But it’s taken personally. Therefore, if we start trying to hammer home these “lessons”, project team members become resentful, they dislike what they see as an exercise in blaming and CYA, and it gets ugly.

So, knowing that going in, because people are people, a delay gives PPR/LL a better chance to be both a positive activity and a successful one.

Okay, Now Back to the Innovation Part
Innovation is something that need space to happen, right? It needs time, it needs investment, and it needs people performing, and collaborating, at their best.

The creativity part comes from building teams that have creative energy, and creative energy is like watching atoms collide: different types of folks, different viewpoints, and different styles can be both destructive and synergistic.

The risk part comes from choosing people who are invested and who do care because they will personally put it on the line. It also comes from giving the space for failure because we know there is a risk/reward and risk/loss principle at work.

And the forgiveness part is about supporting people. It’s accepting that not all things work right the first time…or the second, third, or even fourth; that things get messy at moments and a little slipshod and it’s like watching children make clay and paper mache; that it’s okay when it simply doesn’t work as long as some process was observed, intent was solid, and some lesson could be learned from it.

There, let’s focus a little more on giving professional space for forgiveness. It sounds a little touchy-feely, I know, but innovation has a human element, and people are people, so let’s support them exactly as they are.

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