Learning from Success So That You Keep On Succeeding

It was in my second year of being a Presidential Management Intern when I was feeling somewhat cocky after a string of successful projects. So, when I met with my boss for our weekly status meeting, I was casually leaning back in my chair, just radiating gloat. That is when he leaned forward and said, “you are only as good as your last project. What have you done for me lately?”

It was that advice that has guided me ever since. It is effortless in the euphoria surrounding the triumph of solving a difficult problem or pulling off the near-impossible project to not spend the time questioning just why you succeeded. To do so seems to diminish the success and even doubting that you did succeed. An objective review of how you succeeded will help you in continuing to achieve.

When we succeed, we can become victims of three biases, according to Gino and Pisano (April 2011). There is the attribution bias in which we overestimate how our knowledge and actions contributed to the success. We downplay any external factors that could have just made us more fortunate. The second bias is when we become overconfident in our abilities as we tackle the next challenge. The third bias (and which I believe is most important) is that we don’t ask why we succeeded because the success is proof enough.

Gino and Pisano (April 2011) recount a study in which students were given a set of math problems to complete. When the students submitted their answers, they were only told if they had the answer right or wrong. The students were given time to reflect before they were given a second set of math problems. The second set was designed so a critical concept in the first set of problems was needed to solve the second set. The students who successfully solved the first set of problems generally spent much less time reflecting before they started on the second set of problems. Thus, many of these students failed to find the answer to the second set of problems. Reflection, whether the student succeeded or not, is the key to continuing to succeed.

Sign that says people fail forward to success.

So, how do we best learn from success? We should celebrate success but also examine the causes of success. For every project, we should hold a systematic review. Gino and Pisano (April 2011) give the example of Pixar’s review process. Even though Pixar has had eleven hit animated films in a row, the company still goes through an exhaustive review process. The purpose of the review process is to determine what made the film successful and how to repeat that success.

Another point to remember is to investigate the feedback thoroughly. Was it immediate or at least can be connected to the actions taken? Is the feedback an accurate indicator of success or just a random event that looks like a successful outcome? Feedback is an important concept, and I explore it in greater detail in this discussion posting.

Two final points. First, “[r]ecognize that replication is not learning” (Gino and Pisano, April 2011). Blindly following the same formula again and again can suddenly turn against us as the nature of the problem changes, and what worked before doesn’t work now. And, second, we should always experiment. We can continually improve how we do something. Plus, we can create variations on our actions that may not apply to the current situation but can apply to a challenge.

Failure is a great teacher, but so is a success. Learning from our successes will keep us from becoming “one-hit wonders” and give us the string of successful “hits” to be “rock stars.”

Reference:

Pino, F., & Pisano, G.P. (April 2011). Why leaders don’t learn from success. Harvard Business Review. 68-74.

Business Process Management as If People Mattered: Adaptive Case Management

Does this look like your typical day as a local, state, or federal worker?

  • 31% of your workday is made up of purely ad-hoc, never happens the same way twice tasks
  • 30% of your work revolves around consistent, defined goals but various ways to achieve those goals
  • 20% of your work involves documented and managed tasks that are not automated
  • 17% of your work is automated, but there are numerous exceptions to the automated processes
  • 9% of your work is fully automated, and there are no ways to change the process (Fischer, 2011, p. 84)

Except for a very few exceptions, every government worker is a knowledge worker because they deal with continuously varying situations that we package into cases. We may deal with specific subject areas and perform repeatable functions, but the actual execution of this work will differ significantly from case to case. For example, when I was a paralegal/investigator for a public defender’s office, I helped with numerous assault cases. We had a specific process for interviewing the client, preparing the pleadings, assembling the evidence, and presenting the case. But the facts were always different.

One case was about an assault by a drunken student on an equally drunk off-duty policeman. Another case was a domestic violence issue, while a third involved a store employee who tackled a complaining customer. For each case, the kind of pleadings filed, how I conducted the investigation, and so on would differ based on the specific events in that case. You didn’t know what would happen from day to day, so it was challenging to determine routines beforehand.

These experiences have convinced me that the best way to improve government work is not by imposing Six Sigma and Lean processes onto government employees. Six Sigma and Lean are great methods if you are talking about repeatable procedures that have clear paths and outcomes. But as the above statistics demonstrate, less than 10% of a knowledge worker’s day will benefit from traditional business process management techniques.

But traditional case management, as practiced by many government workers, has many problems. Most government offices have overwhelming caseloads. There are conflicting rules and procedures imposed by top management. And, the current support systems cannot easily handle the many exceptions that occur frequently (Swenson, 2010, pp. 10-24). What is needed is a way that allows for the considerable variation in knowledge work but makes that knowledge work more efficient and effective. The newly emerging management concept of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is the answer along with its closely allied discipline of Social Business Process Management (SBPM) (Fischer, 2011).

Office worker filling out a paper form.

ACM is still evolving, but there are several core elements. First, instead of being based on the principles of scientific management/Taylorism, it revolves around modern knowledge work. ACM deals with change and ad-hoc processes. Second, processes are not formalized, and created upfront but are developed as the knowledge worker continues to see the same issue in several cases. Third, rules and regulations operate more like guardrails that constrain the actions taken in a case. The fourth element is that the knowledge workers rely heavily on a community-built template library and body of knowledge.

ACM relies so heavily on social networking in the form of SBPM. In traditional business process modeling, discovering what processes exist and modeling these processes were done first. Then the knowledge workers were expected to follow the newly established procedures until the weight of exceptions demonstrated that the new processes needed to be modified. Under SBPM, process discovery and modeling occur as knowledge workers work on cases and share their experiences. Thus, there is a great deal of variation at first in handling cases. As knowledge workers gain more experience, they collaboratively develop best practices that can easily be modified when exceptions occur.

I have just briefly summarized these two new management concepts, but I am much excited by the potential to reform government work for the better. There are numerous case studies in Taming the Unpredictable including how one local government agency used ACM for better customer service in its case management processes. Much of ACM and SBPM makes intuitive sense and should be especially attractive to those who argue we need more knowledge sharing and collaboration in our offices.

References:

Fischer, L. (editor) (2011). Taming the unpredictable: Real-world adaptive case management: Case studies and practical guidance. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.

Fischer, L. (editor) (2011a). Social BPM: Work, planning, and collaboration under the impact of social technology. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.

Swenson, K. D. (editor) (2010). Mastering the unpredictable: How adaptive case management will revolutionize the way that knowledge workers get things done. Tampa, FL: Meghan-Kiffer Press.

OK, Generational Stereotype! Why Successful Intelligence Matters in the Workplace

It was during the last three hours of a three-day pre-retirement seminar when I felt like banging my head against my desk. Even though retirement planning can be a boring subject, I enjoyed the two-and-half days of information. Well-researched information I could put to immediate use in helping have a successful retirement.

Then, the last speaker talked about preparing psychologically for retirement. As retirement was still years off for me, I only half-listened. Fifteen minutes into the presentation, and the usual generational stereotypes popped up. I won’t repeat them here other to say that the Boomers were more than a little smug about their retirement prospects while they lamented the Generation X and Millennials’ retirement plans.

Since I started in the federal government as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1997, I have been to many pieces of training on the generations in the workplace. I remember when I, a Generation Xer, was the new kid on the block. Then, coming back to government in December 2008, the new generational star was the Millennials. Now, nearly eleven years later, it’s Generation Z.

Now, I do not entirely disregard generational differences. Differences between the generations are real. But, as research has shown (especially by Dr. Jennifer Deal), there is more in common between the generations than there are differences. I often point out that differences in gender, sexual identification, where you grew up, and other factors have more impact on your personality formation than just your generational cohort. Dr. Little’s personality research is a significant influence on my thinking.

I was at lunch with a colleague bemoaning a recent training on generational differences when she asked what I thought differentiated people. “Successful intelligence,” I immediately said.

I hadn’t thought about successful intelligence for years. It was in 1998 I discovered Dr. Sternberg’s book, The Triarchic Mind, and his concept of successful intelligence.

Chess set and chess board.

According to Dr. Sternberg, successful intelligence is:

“[D]efined as one’s ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one’s life, given one’s cultural context.  A successfully intelligent person accomplishes these goals by figuring out his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then by capitalizing on the strengths and correcting or compensating for the weaknesses.  Strengths and weaknesses are in terms of four kinds of skills:  creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based.  In particular, the individual needs to be creative in order to generate novel and useful ideas; analytical to ascertain that the ideas he/she has (and that others have) are good ones; practical in order to apply those ideas and convince others of their value; and wise in order to ensure that implementation of the ideas will help ensure a common good through the mediation of positive ethical principles.”

His concepts spurred me to work on increasing my creative and practical intelligence. My analytical intelligence was well-developed, but I was persuaded that I needed to balance my analytical intelligence by building up my creative and practical intelligence. In 1997, Sternberg released his follow-book, Successful Intelligence. I bought his book just as I started my Presidential Management Fellowship and decided that gaining my project management certification was a great way to increase my practical intelligence. In recent years, design thinking has helped me improve my creative intelligence.

I explained to my colleague I have noticed that the more successful people at work seem to have a good balance of analytical, creative, practical, and wisdom intelligence. In my admittedly informal observations, the workers with an optimal balance of the four intelligences are better colleagues, more productive, and accomplish much. It doesn’t matter the colleague’s race, gender, generational cohort, or other observable differences.

The best thing about successful intelligence is that it can be developed. As a training and development professional, I can help people to determine which intelligence they want to build. For example, I wanted to be more effective in implementing my ideas, and that is why I studied project management. Design thinking has helped me become better at generating creative ideas. With the proper coaching, mentoring, and training, any worker can reach a good balance between the four intelligences.

Therefore, I disregard generational stereotypes. Dismissing a person based on their generational cohort is as wrong as rejecting a person because of their gender, sexual identification, race, or similar difference. What I look for is how successfully intelligent the person is. But, before you judge other people’s successful intelligence, take the measure of your successful intelligence.