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Thursday Thoughts: Learning From Non-Events

I am a graduate student at George Washington University and I am fortunate enough to be taking a leadership class with a former high-level government official. My professor has served at the highest levels of government, and provides a first hand account how to lead large, complex and bureaucratic government agencies. Every Thursday I’ll post some thoughts on previous lectures that intrigued me, hopefully they do the same for you.

Learning From Non-Event

I’ve posted before about how organizations have “learning disabilities” that impede organization-wide learning and how people hold mental models that need to be challenged in order for learning to occur. Is it possible to learn from a non-event?

A non-event normally occurs when there is information available about a potential problem and there is complete agreement that there really is a problem. Everyone views events differently after they occur, which is a natural progression and showcase of divergent mental models. The goal of an organization should be to find problems and deal with them before they occur.

Think for instance about Y2K. There was common agreement that there was a problem and what led to a solution was that there was a time limit. Just like in the movies, the bomb is always being diffused at the last seconds. The government’s response was threefold:

  1. Outreach and Advocacy
  2. Monitoring and Assessment
  3. Contingency Planning and Regulation

Thankfully, we didn’t see the wide scale meltdown of all technology due to the Y2K bug, but it is a good example of a measurable non-event that was created. Since then, we are more aware of situations that may arise due to how computers are programed and coded.

While not all problems can be seen in advance, the ideal goal of organizations should be to foresee events, create a consensus that a problem exists, work towards alleviating the problem, and measuring the success.

Have you or your organization attempted to learn from these non-events in a way that was conducive to future organizational learning?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Another “non-event” is the current series of possible “government shutdowns.” For some of us, the furloughs are also a “non-event.” I just hope that both the Congress and agencies get smarter about becoming more efficient and so important that any consideration of future sequesters, shut-downs, and furloughs are dismissed as viable options. Instead, the governments needs to be lean, green, and seen as critical to our nation.