Sharing lessons learned – diversity rocks

I was starting work and looking at my computer screen calender reminder. It said: email cleaning. And there’s a lot of that to do! So I dutifully clicked open my email. My eye soon caught a yammer update and recent post by a work buddy. He wrote about learning at work. It hit a cord and triggered in me a thinking process that I just had to follow. Email cleaning for me is deleting unimportant stuff that still is hanging around creating clutter and unwanted distraction. I now wanted to grasp the moment and be positively distracted by a yammer feed. My fingers started to itch. So here goes!:

© kuva Michael Müller

© kuva Michael Müller

My work buddy wrote about bringing learning into the core of working culture – sharing lessons learned both in success and failure. So important. So needed. So often talked about when claiming that our working environment is always a learning environment. True: one learns everyday. But do we really have time to share and learn together? Is there timewise space for having a sit down to just talk and reflect out loud?

Sharing thoughts without all the time being so aware of the clock ticking away minutes is at its best a time when also unexpected solutions rise. You suddenly realize how the learnings from another matter can be further used to fix a problem at hand. Or when you really get into a thinking togther flow mode, completely new ideas can emerge. At best your learning session evolves into an exploration together into uncharted waters. That is the fantastic feature of our mind. It starts to wander. This is what is often needed, I claim, to find the unexpected. For capturing it, you need time to notice what all of a sudden is in front of you.

Divergent thinking is the road to something new. I will not get myself tangled by using the word innovation. It is a hot potato, overused and overvalued, as well as often a meaningless word. For me an innovation is something unexpected – something you didn’t see coming. But when it stares you in the face: Why didn’t I see this before? The idea can start to evolve into new forms, if you let it. You enter, together with others, a thought road that has several inspiring twists and turns. You harvest a wonderful bunch of solutions, as well as new problems to solve.

As part of my own PhD studies, long long time ago, I worked with nerve cell cultures. I spent countless hours developing a method to detect antibodies against neural structures in human blood. As a young researcher I had to learn to live with methodological failings and find optimism to start again. In order to eventually succeed, learning sessions with other researchers working at the lab and the many, often ad hoc, discussions with my supervisor, professor Leif Andersson, were a key factor in my learning process. I remember returning from these talks to my two-meter-long working desk spot in a daze. I had gotten so many different suggestions and opinions on how to solve the problem at hand that I was overwhelmed. I eventually got it: The fact that I might have so many ways out of the problem was fantastic news. It was my job to pick a few to try. I just had to stop banging my head on that same wall that would not budge. Whether the next solution to a problem works or not, I have again learned something.

If you don’t have the courage to try something new, you don’t know if it works. This has been one of the key learnings I have found to really pass the test of time. The armful of different solutions I got as a PhD student were the products of divergent thinking. One can also call it ”thinking outside the box”. My research buddies and supervisors had ”been there”. They had found themselves suddenly lost in a maze of problems. So they could relate with my frustration. Through the lessons learned from and with different people came the understanding that if one road meets a dead end, another way out can always be found. One just might have been looking in the wrong direction.

So both success and failure need to be shared with others as my Nokia Tech work buddy wrote on our yammer forum. This mindset should be tightly embedded into the working culture. However, something that works in a certain project or context doesn’t necessarily work in a new situation. It may need fine tuning or combining different solutions in a new way. Here group thinking with people who have experience from very different types of work tasks really gives added value. In learning sessions like minds think alike is, in my mind, not the best approach for figuring out what works when and where and what doesn’t. Diversity rocks.

Failure leading to discovery is also interesting. Is there space for this type of thinking in today’s often hectic working environments? Would the accidental discovery of penicillin the way Alexander Fleming did it in 1928 be possible today? It all started with Fleming noting that one of his staphylococcus bacterial cultures had been contaminated with fungi. Instead of immediately tossing the culture away as a drawback and putting his effort into making sure that this contamination doesn’t occur again, he took time to look and think. He noticed that the mould had destroyed some of the bacteria in the culture. He talked about the incident with his former assistant Merlin Price, who is reported to have said ”that’s how you discovered lysozyme”. The rest is medical history. By making a pure culture of the ”mould juice” Fleming identified the bacteria-killing mould as Penicillium genus. This is a fantastic true story on learning and finding the unexpected.

A working culture that cultivates, inspires and nurtures divergent thinking is one where there is not only trust to talk about both success and failure but also time to think – together, as well as on one’s own. Both are needed. In the current economic climate reinvention is in demand, both in business as well as research. So a working culture has to find a balance with – often contradictory approaches to leadership.

What is the recipe of the leadership cocktail to success? How many pinches should it include of the following, so often out loud said words of wisdom (?): Well planned is half done – meaning keep to your preplanned goals and milestones, don’t go wandering. Don’t be afraid to fail – meaning take risks and learn from them. Be inventive – meaning don’t invest to much time in writing detailed plans and drawing project plan boxes. Just start doing. Learn along the way. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected.

Wrapping up my thoughts I take a short stroll on memory lane from my working years as a medical doctor in a hospital to my current work at Nokia Tech: Being inventive in a hospital, at the bedside of a critically ill patient, is different from being inventive as a doctor in a R&D unit of a company like Nokia without having the primary responsibility of patient care and safety. When a patient’s life is at stake, one is in the middle of a care challenge where the possibility to immediately share learnings with other doctors and nurses is in acute demand. Here the statemet: ”if you have never failed, you haven’t explored and taken risks” has a totally different meaning. You take the risk of trying something totally new when you are covinced that this is needed because everything else you have tried so far to help the patient has failed. Sharing with colleagues the mental burden that comes with this is of utmost importance.

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