Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.“Practice makes perfect.” “Repetition is the mother of learning.” This is not just good, old-fashioned advice — it’s something our brains actually do with newly learned activities.
I saw an article recently reporting that the brain repeats the patterns associated with a new activity at night during sleep. There’s nothing like doing something over and over if you want it to become easy and natural.
This is, of course, just as true for organizations as for individuals. If you wish to introduce new practices, repetition and reinforcement are critical. And, as with people, it depends to a degree on the age of the organization. Like the still-fresh brain of a child, newly formed organizations can easily be taught and molded, while older organizations and people like me require a lot more effort.
Processes, patterns, responses
All good, if your goal is to introduce a new practice and you already know what it should be. But most organizations, even small and relatively young ones, have many established processes, cultural patterns, programmed responses. Some of them are highly effective, some represent a drag, perhaps eventually a fatal drag on the organization.
How do you really explore current practices and find out what’s right and wrong with them?
How can you discover whether an ingrained pattern is good or bad for the organization?
There are undoubtedly many ways, but repetition has a place here as well, albeit in a different sense. Learning by rote, however unpleasant, is a tremendously effective way to establish patterns and make responses automatic. If you wish to learn something about what you are doing, however, you must repeat it differently. Once again, the purpose is learning, but this time it is about gaining perspective and seeing through a practice, rather than about establishing it. Rather than simply redoing it, you need to replay and observe it in order to gain perspective.
This is precisely what is done in competitive games, from chess to football. Coaches and players will watch and rewatch video footage of a game, or carefully consider each play in order to learn what worked and what didn’t, what actions early on led to problems later and what might have been done differently.
Rewind and review
I have been doing this recently with email correspondence between customers and technical support personnel. Going back over each of the steps of a complex support issue can be astonishingly fruitful. You learn things. You learn about problems with the product, or the instructions. You learn about problems with the process itself. You gain knowledge that can immediately lead to ways to improve product, documentation, and support. Sometimes you even catch hints of new product features or new products that might bring new top-line growth. In fact, complex or simple, almost every interaction has some insight waiting to be mined — it simply wants a second look with open eyes and mind.
There are different ways to do this. One is to record processes in your organization so that they can be investigated later. This is straightforward in cases where the entire interaction is captured in correspondence, or when it occurs in a short, easily recorded context like a single phone call. In many cases, however, another approach is required, particularly when the process crosses organizational boundaries, involves several different people at different times, or plays out over a significant period of time through multiple channels.
If it is too difficult to create a useable audit trail, try occasionally bringing in an observer, someone who will be present throughout the process, but only to observe and record, not to participate. They might try to capture a broad picture of the process, or adopt a particular point of view. For example, the observer might consider the process throughout with a view to improving communication and coordination between internal departments, or he might follow the interactions from the customer point of view to better understand and improve the customer experience. Obviously, in order to gain the cooperation of the participants, it is important to be clear and up front about the purpose of the effort and what outcomes can be expected.
However you approach it, consciously and regularly replaying and reviewing your company’s processes can offer significant opportunities for organizational learning and an enhanced ability to bring about effective organizational change.
Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.