Lessons (Never) Learned!

How many times have you completed a project which has gone well but could have gone better, or somewhat further down the scale… has been a nightmare and could not have gone any worse? It’s usually at this point where we vow to never make the same mistakes again and plan a golden future where that particular error is never repeated!

The reality is as an industry, construction (among a wide array of others) seems to have a habit of repeating the same mistakes over and over again, despite being filled with; competent, intelligent and experienced professionals.

So how could this possibly be the case?

#1 Blame Culture

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When things go wrong often you hear utterances such as “who is responsible for this”. This is also usually the point where people start to distance themselves from the likely name to be offered up in response to this question (some start the distancing process well ahead of this point as they foresee the inevitable finger pointing). It is therefore not surprising when people feel pressured to shift blame from themselves to others or attempt to hide the actual mistake all together. This is the definition of the term “ass covering”.

This behaviour results in the chance to understand the true nature of the failure being lost. If we can’t identify the nature of the failure then we miss the opportunity to learn from it.

#2 Failure Stigma

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No one wants to be a failure! Hence the saying, “Success has many fathers, failure has none”. We all want to be like the company superstar, who has; just brought in the new project, just reported 1000% profit on the latest CVR or just achieved PC on that prestigious Cat B fit-out. There is simply no feeling like success!

With this said most of us understand that failure is a part of growth and is inevitable if you consistently push yourself beyond your comfort zone. While we may understand this intellectually, emotionally we still balk at the idea of being considered a failure (in any form).

‘Blame culture’ is an external, active force which can affect a person’s behaviour, while ‘failure stigma’ is an internal, passive phenomenon, associated with the self-shame one feels at admitting failure. If we allow ourselves to think that mistakes equates to incompetence, then we will always be reluctant to share where we have gone wrong (this even includes admitting the failure to ourselves). This leads to significant opportunities to learn as a group from one another being lost.

#3 Too Busy to Learn

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We are all very, very busy. We are working at 110% and barely have enough time to do the ‘crucial’ activities on our ever extending to do lists. It isn’t much wonder that post project, once we have moved onto newer challenges, we find it difficult to make the time needed to extract all the lessons from our recently completed endeavour.  

We should sit down and identify the issues, establish the fundamental causes of the problems, agree measures to mitigate / prevent these issues from arising again and even agree a follow up meeting to assess how well the agreed solution has worked. Typically the post project review process can often be just a few hastily exchanged words, rather than an integral, structured business process. Without the time to comprehensively consider the failure as a team and contemplating all perspectives, we will fail to learn and grow from the individual and team mistakes we make.

#4 Hindsight Bias

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“The programme was too quick, it would never had worked, next time let’s not accept a programme that sporty”. We tend to do this all the time, we look back at mistakes, we quickly identify the cause at a high-level and assign a high-level solution to prevent it happening again. There you go, problem solved, now we can move on.

‘#3 Too Busy to Learn’ can be (and is often) both a business’ and personal failure to prioritise the lessons learned procedure as a fundamental part of the business process, ‘The Hindsight Effect’ is strictly a personal challenge, rather than a company challenge. We must endeavour to realise that as with any mental activity the amount of effort and time you pay to comprehend something the deeper your understanding and appreciation of it.

Your perspective will always be skewed, even if you make the conscious effort to be as balanced as possible. The best way to combat this is to seek input from others, get their take on the situation, use it to balance and gauge your own thoughts.

Your mistake was not simple or straightforward, if it was then the likelihood is it wouldn’t have occurred. What is much more probable is that the issue (or underlying issue) was complex, multi-faceted and nuanced, with a unique set of variables which led to the failure in that particular instance happening. Give your learning opportunity the respect it deserves, do not let the convenient haze of your memory attenuate your experience!

So How Do We Learn

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We are often as individuals too excited or concerned with what is to come to spend the time to look at what has come and gone. We allow ourselves to look back on our challenges through a convenient lens which generalises the issue and solution as it means we can expediently move on. When we do this we erode the potential value of learning almost to nothing.

Failure is not evil and is in fact an inevitable by-product of any significantly challenging undertaking. Failure of a substantial nature and scale is obviously undesirable, but what we must do is change our attitudes and understand that learning from our failures should be up there with hitting the target profit margin or achieving practical completion.

We as an industry can’t afford to ignore the lessons which can be extracted from our mishaps. To do this we must cultivate environments where honesty is rewarded and failure is not by default vilified. We must encourage our workforce that a mistake can be an opportunity to learn not a sign of incompetence. We should make time and space for reflection on learning from our failures a central pillar of the business.

As supremely successful basketball coach John Wooden once said,

Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be!

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