Leadership and ManagementThe Right QuestionsWhich (Options and Risk)

Lessons learnt from decision making

The Right Questions - which lessons learnt

Which things need to change and what remains the same? How do we apply lessons learnt to our decision making?

We need to be continually assessing our decisions and applying the lessons learnt from our actions.

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” 

George Bernard Shaw

Getting it wrong

After a couple of years experience in Bomb Disposal I went to Africa with my unit to clear an area that was littered with bombs of various descriptions.  My troops, with the help of some local tribesmen, scoured the bush looking for anything that might go bang and then they would call me up when they found something.  There was no shortage of finds and so they would stockpile munitions so that they could be dealt with in one go. 

On this particular day, I was with my Non-Commissioned Officers and we went together to sort out the latest haul.  The Staff Sergeant and I had passed our training together and got on very well so it was a pleasure to spend some time working in unison.  We had a pile of artillery shells to dispose of – a fairly simple task – and so we proposed to apply the necessary explosives, light the fuse and withdraw to a safe distance.  We had not been able to get the Landrover right up to the site, because of the difficult terrain, so we chose a spot in the distance with some protection that we could walk to and then cut the fuse to the right length in order to allow us enough time to get there. 

After checking our work we lit the fuse, checked our watches and set off towards the escarpment that would give us cover.  We chatted about important things such as how many letters we had received that week and how much we wanted a cold beer.  The funny thing was that the escarpment was not getting any closer; so we increased our pace.  Still, we laughed and joked as we walked briskly along, but then another look at our watches gave us some cause for alarm. 

At this point, we broke into a run. 

There was no longer laughing or even chatting.  All that was said was, “We are not going to get there in time, do you see any other cover?”  We spotted what seemed to be a series of gullies over to our left so we headed towards them.  Upon reaching them our relief quickly turned back to anxiety because even though the gullies were deep the shallow angle of the slopes would afford us little cover.  We ran on.  At this point in the proceedings I sent up one of my most eloquent prayers – it went something like this: “GOD HELP!”  We only had seconds to go and so we dived into a shallow pit and crouched down with our backs to the sand to keep our heads below the parapet.

For a few seconds, the only sound was our thumping hearts, heavy breathing and the noise of a nonchalant fly investigating my hat. Then we felt the explosion – a pulse through the earth and a punch through the air.  We looked at one another.  No words were exchanged but much was communicated.  We were both thinking the same thing: that was a bigger bang than expected; we felt dreadfully close!

I was hoping that (from the way we had positioned the munitions) the blast would be mostly directed into the ground but then there came a sound that made me flinch – it was like an angry hornet going past my ear – and then there was another, followed by little thuds and puffs of sand as the shrapnel came down around us.  As the deadly rain struck the ground there was little we could do so I opted to laugh and my colleague used a varied, colourful but sadly unrepeatable string of words to express his feelings.

The Right Questions - which lessons learned

Learning from mistakes

When our self-induced bombardment came to an end and it was obvious we were both not only alive but also unharmed, we spent a few precious seconds enjoying the quiet.  After our short pause, we decided to walk back to the site and review our procedures before moving onto the next cache of weaponry.  It was obvious that we had some important lessons to learn.

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” 

Bill Gates

The process of planning, looking at options and making decisions does not stop. We may start with a more in-depth planning process but we will constantly be making new decisions, reviewing our progress and adapting our plans. This is why the cycle of decision making never stops as we see in the illustration below.

At the beginning when we looked at the ‘Where’ question we acknowledged that we see things with greater clarity and detail depending on the event horizon, how far or near something is to us. In this way, even our overall vision can evolve over time as we begin to see the destination with greater clarity. Therefore, as we move forward we need to take time to pause and reassess our plans as we go.

Constant change requires constant reflection and improvement

The world and our situation are constantly changing.  We need flexibility in order to adapt as we go. Sometimes this happens through subtle transformation, sometimes through more formal change management.  However we do it, if we want to learn and be more effective, we need a process of reviewing our actions and decisions.

This can be just taking an objective pause to reflect in the decision-making process, as happens under the ‘which’ step within The Right Questions framework.

Some pauses may be longer than others. We need pit stops on top of the end of race review; time out huddles, as well as the big post-match, debrief.  It is worth planning these in through the life of a project. Sometimes it is hard to stop to review because we feel we should be getting on with something.  At times like this, we need to remember progress is no good if it is in the wrong direction.  We need to take time to stop and check.

In the end, when we need a post-project review, it is easy to put it in the programme but requires real discipline to actually do it.  It can be hard to enforce a time of reflection at a time when people just want to celebrate or they just want to move on it to the next thing.  Once you have achieved a goal, especially when it goes well, the temptation is to skip over the review.  Don’t. There are always important things to learn at this stage. If you discuss them and record them, then others can learn from your experiences too. 

History may repeat itself because people fail to read history, but don’t be guilty of not giving people the chance to learn in the first place. Take the time out to share.

Whatever point in our journey we have reached, after a review we can decide which things in our plan need to change and which things remain the same.  Most importantly we can identify success and plan to build on it.

Failing is just learning to succeed

What about things that did not go so well?  We can be afraid of failure and afraid to admit it when we do fail, therefore we need to change the way we see things when they don’t go to plan. If something has gone wrong then we can turn it into a learning opportunity.

Thomas Edison, the great empirical inventor, knew the value of learning from apparent failure. He had thousands of attempts to create an effective electric light bulb, but those that did not work he did not consider failures, just as positive proofs of how not to make a light bulb!  Even after his initial patent, he continued to refine his light bulb design for decades afterwards.  His approach to reviewing and applying lessons was lifelong and contributed to him being the fourth most prolific inventor in history.  Edison said:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thomas Edison

And that is a good lesson to end with. Not to give up, never to give in, no matter what the challenges are.

Reflection Question: Have you had any heroic failures that you have learned from?

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