Is anyone deploying ‘Innovation and Learning’ people alongside COVID-19 Response Teams?

This is a genuine question. I only ask because there’s something from Dave Snowden rattling around my head that seems particularly relevant at the moment.

“In a crisis, you should always deploy an innovation team alongside the business recovery teams…to capture the novel practice”

The point of this statement (for me) is that during a crisis people will do things they have never done before. The situation will be complex or even chaotic, so the ‘business as usual’ rules do not apply.

People will probe complex problems to see what might work, or just take direct action in a chaotic situation. Some things will work, some things will fail, but each and every action is an opportunity to learn ‘something’. Learning that could be useful to others in a similar situation, or the people following behind you.

The question is how do we capture the valuable information about new practice, and how do we make sense of it?

But that’s what Post Incident Reviews do. Nope, I don’t think they do. This isn’t a flat out dismissal of the post incident review industry, but I do think they have limitations.

Ask someone what happened during a high intensity, rapidly moving situation from a month ago. I’d bet they will put together a ‘story’ that represents a logical, ordered sequence of events that match the actions and outcomes they think happened. I know I do. It’s called retrospective coherence.

The same thing happens in Post Incident Reviews. People recall the things that happened through the lens of retrospective coherence, to fit with what they thought actually happened and the organisation’s rules. The longer you leave it, the more likely you are to get a ‘blurred’ or biased version of events.

The Cheese Fondue Approach. There’s another dimension to this – homogenization. Basically everything gets mixed together in a gloopy mess. This is an idea that builds upon the Swiss Cheese Model of Failure (explained here) where everything is mixed together for the review, like the cheese in a fondue. What is drawn out are generic messages that are homologous or ‘average’. Basically they don’t really work for anyone. There’s a link in this post the lovely paper, Hot Cheese: A Processed Swiss Cheese Model that explains the situation.

Image: Retrospective Coherence via @Complex Wales. How things really happened and how we tell the story. Beautifully explained here:

Naive Observers and Hot Reviews. The good news is that some organisations have recognised the risks of retrospective coherence and put things in place to make sure they capture learning as quickly and as accurately as possible.

People from Fire and Rescue Services have told me about a process where they ‘download’ the learning at the site of an incident. Appropriately called ‘Hot Reviews’, and they weren’t joking.

The other example is from this webinar: A conversation about Risk & Resilience, with Dave Snowden & Robert Koch from the South African Energy Company Eskom. There’s a lovely quote I took from the webinar “put naive observers in alongside the incident team to capture the key learning points” which I wrote about in this post.

So is Anyone Deploying Innovation and Learning People? As I said earlier, this is a genuine question. I spoke about it with Toby Lowe from Northumbria University earlier today and we were both asking the same question.

If we are going to come out of COVID-19 having learned as much as we can, it’s probably a good idea to try and do something (resources permitting, of course). Expect more from Toby on this.

Here’s my offer… In my small corner of the world (@goodpracticeWAO) we are trying to have a go at something along these lines (resources permitting of course). Starting this Friday we plan to do this:

  • One of the Team has volunteered for the role of ‘COVID-19 Learning Log Keeper’. (we are trying to think of a cooler name, but that’s where we are for the moment).
  • In the Dave Snowden quote this person is the ‘observer’
  • The plan is for the Log Keeper to have a ‘what did you learn conversation’ with each team member, once a week.
  • A different person each day of the week. As there are six of us, the maths work out perfectly.
  • The conversation shouldn’t last no more than 30 minutes, recording what is said in writing (at the moment).
  • To prompt Team Members the following questions will be used:
    • What have you done differently this week? (descriptive)
    • What did you learn? (reflective)
    • What has gone wrong? (we don’t take “nothing” for an answer, something always goes wrong.)
  • The Log Keeper will summarise the findings into a short note to be shared and discussed at the Monday team meetings.
  • As time goes on and the volume of material grows, we may need to look at using something digital to manage the information.
  • For wider sharing of our learning we are looking at options around blogs and podcasts.

That’s basically it for the moment. We are a fully dispersed team, working from home (like many people at the moment). It’s an attempt to capture learning in a systematic way so that we hopefully emerge from COVID-19 better than we went in.

I should also say, there are some other impacts we are thinking about here, like making sure we stay in touch, have regular social contact and help each other to try and make sense of an uncertain world.

Happy to share what we learn as we go along, and learn from approaches anyone else is trying.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

23 Responses

  1. Emma Brute

    Thanks for posting this. I’m really interested to see how this goes and think its something I am going to adopt myself, resource permitting as you say. Happy to keep in touch with any findings.

  2. I am doing exactly this with a couple of clients at the moment as well. At some point, it would be good to document this approach in practice. That’s what I’ll be doing and sharing it on my blog. Thanks for this.

  3. Jamie Smith

    Hi Chris. This really struck a chord with what we are doing at Hafod, it’s be good to compare a few notes to see what we could learn from one another.

    Happy to have a chat about our approach to innovation and learning, which I find interesting anyway (biased of course)

  4. ‘Logger’ is the shortcut we are using (in Dutch) for ‘COVID-19 Learning Log Keeper’. Linguistically speaking close to ‘blogger’… Furthermore, this is where we are with the Log Keeping practice at Percolab Belgium: April 6th I proposed the 3 questions as check-in in our weekly meeting. From there my colleague Ivo and I built on it and prototyped a first online conversation around the 3 questions, inviting participants to capture their emergent and novel practices (April 14). A few days later we decided to make that framing webinar recurrent every 2 weeks, next time on April 28. For anyone who has and will attend that one, our full team decided by consent last Monday to weekly continue the practice of answering the 3 questions in an online open Innovation Meeting on Wednesdays. Link to the framing webinar (in Dutch): The invitation to attend Innovation Meetings follows after you showed up in the framing webinar. Blog (in Dutch)

  5. Hi Chris, I would be interested to learn from anything your team comes up with, especially any new techniques. I am currently putting together a collaboration to carry out an action research project looking at throwing a variety of techniques at complex issues. See: (Dave Snowden has already expressed interest along with a few others who are championing particular techniques).

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