Speaking of metrics, and their limitations, here’s a biggie: You can’t measure the results of any path you didn’t take.
The ramifications are enormous whether it’s public policy, business strategy, or your own day-to-day management decisions. While we don’t know, will never know, and in fact can’t know the outcome of the alternatives we didn’t pursue, we still have to choose between engaging in post mortem analysis and denying its value.
Those who promote post mortem analysis (I’m among them) consider it essential for personal and organizational development. Even though you can’t know with certainty what would have happened had you chosen a different path, the exercise will still make you smarter and better-able to make the next decision.
Whether the subject is:
- FDR’s New Deal, and whether it does or does not deserve credit for the GDP’s 10%-per-year growth ($600B to $860B) throughout his first term …
- Healthcare, and whether the country would be better off had “HillaryCare” been turned into law in the 1990s …
- Microsoft’s tragic decision (I’m biased) to replace its old menu-plus-button-bar user interface with The Ribbon …
- Your company’s decision to invest in a new product line or abandon an aging one …
- Your decision to outsource data-center operations …
… the question isn’t whether you should engage in post mortem analysis. It’s how you should go about it.
For guidance, look to the game of bridge.
Those who prefer to “move forward instead of looking backward” explain that retrospective analysis is a distraction from the important work of building the future (or in the case of bridge-playing, dealing the next hand).
Good bridge players, in contrast, dissect difficult hands after playing them. Both sides participate. For them, the post mortem is an intellectually honest attempt to find better ways of analyzing the situation, describing hands through changes to the bidding system, guessing the placement of hidden cards, and at times tricking opponents into making bad plays. Their goal: To understand the game better so they can bid and play future hands better.
In addition, the discussion will help them figure out which players will make good partners, and will help them understand how each player thinks, so as to partner with them better.
Some players do dissect so as to blame their partner for failures in an attempt to avoid blame for their own decisions: “My bidding was fine — you could have made the hand if you had played it better.” While annoying, even these second-raters end up learning from the discussion.
Take your guidance from the best bridge players. Your world has parallels to all of their post mortem goals, beginning with the importance of intellectual honesty, and, as promoted here from time to time, of its organizational equivalent — a “culture of honest inquiry.”
It isn’t difficult to tell who is and who isn’t intellectually honest. For example, anyone who uses both of these phrases: “the blame game”; and “we need to hold people accountable”; is intellectually dishonest. They are engaging in my-team/your-team game-playing, not honest discovery. It’s the blame game when you’re trying to determine how their team’s actions contributed to a problem, but it’s holding people accountable when they’re trying to pin the blame on a member of your team.
Likewise, anyone who tries to make you angry at someone else or some identifiable group is intellectually dishonest: Anger interferes with dispassionate analysis (by definition) which is why it’s a favored tool of the propagandist. Ignore them.
Something that should go without saying but apparently doesn’t: Those who deliberately spread falsehoods in order to “win” are also among the intellectually dishonest. Ignore them too.
The intellectually honest begin a post mortem analysis by laying out the previously accepted model or the competing models of How Things Work. They describe the actions taken for which the post mortem is being performed. They ask how the results affect the group’s shared understanding, and work to bring all stakeholders into consensus regarding an improved model … possible when everyone involved participates in a culture of honest inquiry; impossible otherwise, which is why the culture is so important.
When all stakeholders share an understanding of how the planetary climate, or national economy, or company business model, or IT organizational model works, discussions of how to address a current situation are efficient and productive.
When they don’t, the only alternatives are authoritarian decisions or political compromises.
It’s hard to say which is worse.