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Organisational Learning and the Importance of Real Communication

by Ben Linders on Feb 11, 2016 |

At the GOTO Berlin 2015 conference Stephen Carver, senior lecturer, consultant and speaker in project and programme management, gave a keynote presentation about the space shuttle case study. He explored communication between managers and engineers, learning from failure, the dangers of groupthink, and organisational learning.

InfoQ interviewed him about how bringing in procedures and rules often doesn’t help to prevent problems, enabling communication between engineers working in different companies, taking learnings from failure to a next level to prevent similar problems, and what engineers can do if they want to influence decisions on developing and releasing products.

InfoQ: In your talk you explored the accidents that have happened with the space shuttle and what has caused these accidents. What made you pick this topic?

Stephen Carver: Like many things in life this case study was an example of serendipity. I first heard about what had actually happened several years ago and was so shocked that I mentioned it in a lecture. Someone came up afterwards and added a little more to the story and over the years it has grown and grown so what started as a one minute comment now can run up to a whole days lecture and workshop. I guess that it is an example of some stories just growing organically because the essential truth behind them are so powerful to people.

InfoQ: You talked about how Nasa tried to fix problems by bringing in more procedures and rules. It this similar to what the software industry tried to do with methods and procedures for software development?

Stephen Carver: Oh yes! As Albert Einstein once said "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift." As humans our greatest gift is the ability to mix the logical with the intuitive and hence create exciting new ideas and possibilities. Due to the perception that there is more turmoil and complexity in the World there has been a tendency recently across all organisations to try and regain control using logical linear methods including methods and procedures. Whilst appearing to help many of these systems actually make the problem worse - but they do provide a wonderful audit trail to explain the failure!

InfoQ: Coordination between people and teams in different organizations can be difficult. Any suggestion what you can do when you are working as an engineer in one company trying to work together with engineers from other companies?

Stephen Carver: Easy – go visit them and have lunch! We know that most good communication depends not only on the words and data but largely on voice and body language. Too many engineers reply solely on data and so miss out on about 70% of their potential communication potential. I know that many people will say that traveling and lunches are expensive but if you think that a train ticket and a burger are expensive, you should try a project failure! The growth of video conferencing/Facetime is overcoming distance and yet so few engineers use them effectively. Stop sending emails and start meeting people.

InfoQ: We can learning from accidents, from problems that has happened. Do you have tips for taking such knowledge to a next level to prevent similar problems in the future?

Stephen Carver: Stories. Again I’ll quote Einstein "if you want your children to be intelligent tell them stories. If you want them to be more intelligent tell them more stories". I have found that most organisations fail to learn from mistakes as they only apply more rules and/or punishment/governance. While these can be a part of the solution, I have found that if you blend them with stories then people absorb the lessons learnt and are more likely to behave differently next time. As an example all bankers should watch (preferably twice a year) a recent film (a form of story) called "The Big Short" as a part of their education, otherwise we will soon have another global banking collapse.

InfoQ: At several points in your talk you questioned "who decides". Often it’s the management, the people who are paying, or those with the most (political) power who will decide to go forward or to stop. What in your opinion are the risks associated with this way of decision making?

Stephen Carver: This question needs to be looked at from both sides. Yes many "managers" (who wield political and financial power) seem cut off from the realities of their actions, but many "workers" simply use this an excuse to do nothing and/or criticise "management". In the best organisations this stereotype polarisation of roles is replaced with a more integrated team model.

InfoQ: Any advice that you want to give to engineers (software developers, testers and tech leads) if they want to influence decisions on developing and releasing products?

Stephen Carver: Easy – do a course in management! I’m not saying necessarily become a manager but rather understand their language, motivations and perspectives. Only then can communication and hence influence take place. No - managers can’t learn engineering – they don’t have the maths!

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