Only individual brains learn: collective reflection, experienced people, their limits, and the myth of organizations learning

In the military, we do something called an AAR (or after-action review, after-action report) after completing a task or mission. Well-intended. But results matter more than intention.

It doesn’t happen. Not often enough or in ways that result in making work easier for the next generation. A bit pessimistic, I realize. In practice, I never hear of anyone reading the last iteration’s AAR notes. I look for it, but I almost never find it.

The intent? Experience. To learn from our mistakes. To do better next time.

The result? Can’t find the notes, if they even exist. No one remembers to look for them. The people who were here last time learned the lesson. Maybe they did. Then they left. And now we’re re-creating the wheel.

What about those who still happen to be here? They don’t remember anything useful. They’re not volunteering themselves. They weren’t paying attention to other people’s jobs, just their own. They believe that since they had to figure it out, the next iteration should to. And even if they do mean well, they can’t remember everything.

The work products left behind? If they can be found, they make very little sense. They’re mis-labeled. The labels don’t match the content. They’re scattered. Incomplete. Unsure if the final product or one of the initial versions. Not sure what sequence they go in. A challenge, for sure; I sort through it, but it takes quite a bit of time making sense of the mess.

I read somewhere that organizations like Walmart started out as mom-and-pop, then mom and pop got their shit together and became huge.

And just how did mom and pop get their shit together? Through systems. Not just any systems, but systems that actually resulted in making work easier.

How should we define system? Anything that lets us do more with comparatively less. Technology. Advancement. Measurable improvement.

The real system, in my opinion is a combination of the culture of the people there, the equipment, and the interaction of people and equipment, the interface between man and machine.

Applying systems means getting leverage on work, it means automating and delegating, to further free up human capital towards even greater value work effort. Resources should flow to greater value. Human capital is the greatest of resources.

If you work, then your effort is the human capital. Is it being wasted?

Fuckin’ probably so.

Especially when that means re-learning lessons somehow already learned! I hear these talks all the time about a unit learning to do XYZ task.

We all understand that such a statement comes with an expiration date, and it’s a pretty short one as people forget, move around or get slammed with fuckery.

Organizations don’t learn. An individual learns.

An organization develops a culture.

If I had to 80/20 my efforts on improving any system, it would be that: the culture.

Alongside that, the written systems. Because people forget. We didn’t evolve to remember lists of things to do. Our brains evolved to experience stories – journeys to places over time, where to find food, water, shelter, safety, places to avoid.

Therefore, if we do create written systems, we must view them from the point of view of the next person arriving unaware, uninformed, and tasked with untangling the same confusion we initially encountered when we stood in his place earlier.

We should ask, is it posted where he would need it?

Does it make sense on first impression?

Is it intuitive?

Can he trust it? Date, location, point of contact…

How does he build on it for the next person?

Is it short… Because depending on what the reader has going on, it’ll feel overwhelming without another human being there to guide him through the first few steps. Overwhelming just means it won’t get read.

Ask your own questions.