I had to give someone bad news and I hated doing it.
You see, I usually ride my bike to the gym. It’s a short distance and gets me warmed up before a workout. It also saves gas, and therefore, saves money. When I got to the gym one recent evening, I saw a cable and padlock lying on the ground at the bike rack. There aren’t many of us who ride to the gym, and I thought I recognized the lock and bright blue cable. Unfortunately, it had been cut and there was no bicycle nearby. I took the damaged cable and lock to the front desk.
When I got into the gym, I looked around for the one guy who I know rides his bike a lot. Mike’s bike isn’t fancy or expensive – just a common hybrid, but he has told me that he enjoys riding his bike more than anything – even running! I see him riding all over our part of town since on non-workout days, Mike will ride for over two hours.
So, I found Mike in the free weight area and asked if he’d ridden his bike to the gym that day. “Yes,” he replied. And then, I had to tell him that his bike was gone, and the cable and lock were cut. He didn’t get as I would have been, and he left the gym before I could chat with him again. From experience, I do know that the local police and most insurance plans are of no help at all when you have a bicycle stolen.
Bad news comes in a lot of categories. Mike lost money, transportation, and joy. We often com across bad news in our jobs as product, project, and engineering managers, too. Projects have bad news when they are behind schedule and over budget. New product development (NPD) efforts result in bad news when the technology doesn’t work as envisioned or the market interest is lacking. Engineering managers deliver bad news when employee promotions are not forthcoming or when a company is forced to downsize because of a poor economy. Worse yet, instead of a being mere acquaintances, as managers we are usually deeply vested in the lives of our staff and the viability of the project.
Product, project, and engineering bad news also costs us money, time, and joy, just as Mike’s stolen bike has cost him. However, we can learn from the mistakes and errors in a project to improve our circumstances next time. This is the heart of a learning organization and learning is the key to a lean business model leading to successful project execution and product development.
Learning from Bad News
First, I learned from Mike’s stolen bike incident and reflected on how I could improve the safety of parking my bike at the gym. I use a “Krypton” lock with an excessively thick cable, unlike his smaller and thinner cable. I hope my bike will be safe with this lock. Second, I park my bike closest to the main traffic lane. Mike typically parked his bike closest to the gym’s secondary exit where less people walk or drive by. Although, my bike is more likely to get bumped by a careless driver or inconsiderate pedestrian, it is more visible. I’m willing to take that risk.
We should also apply reflection and learning to the bad news we get from projects. Learning from the past to prevent future errors is a foundational principle of a lean organization. “Lean” means to reduce waste and scrap, and to apply continuous learning in seeking continuous improvement.
On a project that fails to meet its objectives, we typically ask the following questions.
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- What can be improved next time?
These questions form the basis of a lessons learned review. However, most product, project, and engineering managers are using only a backward look in such a review. Real value, especially the ability to learn, comes from applying a continuous improvement mindset throughout the project – and especially when bad news hits.
Characteristics of a Learning Organization
A learning organization is not ashamed of failure. Instead, the team focuses heavily on the last question of how to improve. Learning organizations take the time to review best practices as well as the things that have gone awry. And a learning organization has no fear.
Most of us have been conditioned over a lifetime of formal education and complying with the norms and laws of society to fear being called out as wrong or different. We have been taught that there is one right answer on every test. While exams do have right and wrong answers, product development projects have a lot of different options available to accomplish the goals and objectives of the business. With hindsight, one choice might have been better than another, but there aren’t wrong answers in life!
A learning organization also accepts that there is no one right answer and feels free to investigate and explore multiple alternatives. Trade-offs are evaluated to determine which option might be best for the customer, market, and firm at that particular point in time. Freedom to make choices and to evaluate alternatives is a hallmark of a learning organization.
Learning from Bad News
I’m going to be a little more diligent at the gym when parking and locking my bike at the rack. I am really sorry that Mike had his bike stolen. I want to learn from his experience because I don’t want to suffer the same fate.
As a product, project, and engineering manager, I’m going to learn from the experiences of past successes and failures. Bad news isn’t just a set of dismal facts, but an opportunity to improve. We can dap the lessons learned to enhance team member relationships, to improve process flows, and to encourage additional ideas and feedback from the customer. Bad news is only bad if you don’t learn from it!
To learn how to become a lean learning organization as project, product, or engineering managers, please join us in an NPDP Workshop. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
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