Post-mortem meetings and Christmas miracles

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Information Technology

Let me start with a question. Has any KT session you have attended ever left a mark or helped you in the long run? There will be very few who can say yes to this with any degree of confidence. They would be the lucky ones. For the rest it is just an interminable few days of listening to a monologue by some person who does not really care whether you understand or not. I know because I have been such a person, on occasions.

For the uninitiated, KT, in information technology parlance, is knowledge transfer. This is one part of the larger, organisation-wide practice of knowledge management. This is a process for disseminating very specific, concentrated chunks of information, accumulated over the years by hard work and bad luck. The Agile manifesto puts it quite elegantly as:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

Right from the plain-Jane shared drive, containing relevant (mostly irrelevant) documents to the US Army standard, After Action Review (AAR), there are several ways of passing on what one has learnt. Gartner’s Darin Stewart highlights one aspect of the AAR in his blog which I think is very significant – no recriminations. During these reviews whatever is said cannot be used by anyone to assess an individual’s performance in the project or task. The rule is – no one shall play God and denounce thee.

The IT industry, especially Indian IT, is service-oriented in nature. There is a very obvious master-slave relationship (crude but close enough :-)). The only thing missing is the line “As you command, Master” from people’s email signatures. Nevertheless, processes are taken seriously, without any push from the customer, and reviews are held frequently. Any post-mortem reviews (appropriate right?) held, delve into a great depth. There are pages of reports produced, actions assigned (notice the verb), superiors are informed and 15 days later everyone has forgotten about it. This is very true in case the previous milestone was a success. And is even more true if it was a failure.

In the latter case, it becomes very obvious that people are trying to cover their backsides in the first 5 mins of the meeting. How many times have you seen a colleague trying to hunt down an old email which can prove that he/she had proof of knowing that the system would fail but did nothing since no one approved it? During the annual performance appraisal he/she can then throw the email at the supervisor’s face and demand why the rating was so poor. One of the most amusing things I have seen during these review meetings is the formation of a review team to ensure such slips do not happen again. Quite like the committees our politicians are good at setting up and with the same end result. No one remembers what the review team was supposed to do.

I’m digressing. My point is such review meetings, post-failures, tend to be a blame game. And the one who is not vocal enough or smart enough to duck, is blamed. It is a natural reaction to fear from any negative action on one’s person and protect oneself from it. Instead, like the US Army, these review meetings should concentrate only on disseminating what was learnt during the failure. When the team knows that any disclosure of information in such meetings will not lead to a downgrade in the performance assessment, then there will be a far better release and absorption of these ‘lessons learnt’. It would then not matter whether anyone kept any minutes of that or not. It would simply transform into a group discussion, with each person retaining almost all of that which was discussed. If this kind of a philosophy works for the US Army, which I think you will agree has more important work to do, it would work on a team of geeky, overweight software developers.

There are caveats, of course. To catalyse such a discussion, a skilful moderator, who has great people skills, would be needed. It is a role where trust has to be implicitly established. The team will need to understand that humans make mistakes and that it takes another human to recognise and accept such mistakes. The moderator has to be this person. Is it Christmas yet? A miracle is required in the corner IT shop.

One can argue that essentially overlooking people’s mistakes will only cause more harm and that people will not try to change themselves until someone comes at them with a stick. I beg to differ. As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, I believe in the basic goodness of humanity. People will be ashamed enough to change when they see others overlooking their mistakes (it’s not wishful thinking, its Gandhigiri :-)).

  1. Rutvik says:

    Here is my two cents.This problem exists in all the sectors in India, not just IT. The biggest aspect of the problem lies in the education and the work culture in India. Like all stories of our incompetance, we need to go way back in history to see what really is the problem with us.
    It started when the Brits ruled over us, they had a simple mantra for us “Just do what you are told, rest will be fine”. They took the burden of the decision-making and organisational expertise, we were left with the menial on-ground duty.

    Roll on fifty years. Brits have left/abandoned us. But a new class has emerged, the polity and high society, to take the place of the Brits. Socialism ensued and ensured that there was little or no private sector. It was a case of fight and flight(literally, though cheaper priced buses and ships were more of a draw) for government jobs. And to cater to this, our entire education system was kept the same despite changes in the world. It was designed to create an army of english speaking acolytes with half baked knowledge who turn to their superiors at the hint of unfamiliarity/change/critical decision making to ensure dependency on their masters, it still is. Only a select few are trained in decision making, like an IAS official. Rest of the acolytes were told to follow the mantra.

    1991 happened, but education and work culture have remained same. Dotcom happens, still the same. IT happens, it still is the same. Think you and I are immune? No! Think of the times, people, and the sheer number of instances we have used the mantra in our personal lives. “these kt’s and meetings amount to nothing, now that i got the gist, lemme grab a wink. What matters really is working on ground, my superior will help me out then. They don’t expect anyone to get it first time anyway” “which college do I choose? Lemme select the one my school topper chose, and besides he’s my friend too he’ll help me out if the course is difficult” “oh shit! These guys bowl at a million miles per hour, lemme give strike to my partner. He’s talented you know”.
    Indians will never acknowledge the role of organisational capacity even at its most brazen instance”What the hell does an architect do? He’s just a guy drawing in a air conditioned office. Civil engineer is the real on ground hero!” “He was ok, no big deal that he won the contract for us with his witty mouth. You know back in the day he could not even do the simplest of the things and used to turn to me for help, but that bugger was always on the good books of our bosses. Politics, you know”

    Not punishing will not work, as we will take it lightly. The only solution is an eventual change in culture which will not happen soon.

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