Turning the Page Too Quickly

Ignoring history begins with neglecting rigorous post-mortems of disappointments

A business proposal comes forward that sounds similar to a failed initiative from the past and we quickly divide into two camps:

1)     Opponents who can’t believe some people are so blind to history. They perceive the idea’s business model as fundamentally unworkable so those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

2)     Advocates who believe “We already tried that” is a symptom of being stuck in the past. They are confident it’s different this time because (and pick as many as you like):

  • Market conditions are now more favorable
  • Technologies have matured to bridge prior gaps
  • The prior leader and/or team wasn’t as competent as we are
  • An impatient senior leadership pulled the plug too soon
  • [enter your own favorites here]

Does any of this sound familiar? Maybe you remember last May’s Dilbert comic Already Tired That Plan but it’s more likely you regularly live this debate. Which side comes out on top is a coin toss, but ultimately one wins the day and the other side is thoroughly disgusted with the organization’s folly.

It’s familiar to me, too. Prior disappointments are resurrected as fresh ideas accompanied by “It’s different this time.” Maybe it is, but no one truly knows if it’s sufficiently different this time because no one truly knows what actually did and did not work last time. From any single prior initiative I usually hear several conflicting myths of why it failed. Even Advocates have conflicting stories.

Some Day We’ll Look Back on This, Laugh Nervously, and Change The Subject

Don’t expect project teams to charter a rigorous, independent post-mortem that fully documents and archives the best possible understanding of what went right and what went wrong. Human nature wants to turn the page and put their disappointments behind them. But we are walking away from valuable new insights embedded in those disappointments.

If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires. Pauline Phillips

It falls on leadership to demand the consistent discipline of wringing lessons out of failure so when the idea rises again you will have facts, not myths, to guide your decision. Of course it’s different this time… but you will know with surgical precision what needs to be different this time. The trick is to get started now, so…

  1. What are your recent disappointment that warrant high quality post-mortems, and
  2. Will you make them happen this time to avoid the swirl next time?

© Dave Wittenberg

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