Skype is better, but still problematic

My article on Skype exposing address books to the world has gone mini-viral. Written in 2017, it’s gotten dozens of citations in early 2019. A reporter approached me, asking if the problem still exists. After doing some research, here’s what I’ve found.

Microsoft’s article is incorrect (probably by accident)

Microsoft explains how People You May Know suggestions are generated in this article. At the time of this writing (February 14, 2019), the article is incomplete. The article claims you or the contact must both take action to be visible to each other through People You May Know. For example, you must add each other in your address books. Or you must exchange an invite and acceptance.

Microsoft doesn’t mention the problem case: mutual connections

The problem case exists, but is not listed here: if you have a mutual connection, then you’ll show up in each other’s People You May Know list. The mutual connection is someone who fits the you-both-take-action criteria.

So if Sam is connected to Ash, and Ash is connected to Stacy, then Sam and Stacy will show up in each others’ People You May Know list even though they’ve never taken any action with respect to each other.

Sam and Stacy will see each other without a direct connection

Deleting Still Doesn’t Solve The Problem

I deleted all my contacts. Skype is still suggesting dozens of people. I don’t know any of them. As mentioned on Microsoft’s list above, Skype remembered my past connections and is still suggesting their people to me. I don’t know any of these suggested people, but now I know one of my prior contacts knows them.

This no longer works for strangers, thank goodness

When I first found this issue (Dec 2017), I created a new test account. Browsing a stranger’s profile was enough to get suggestions of people with the same last name who looked the same (presumably family members). As of today (Feb 2019), it seems like Microsoft has reined this in a bit … from my very brief testing, it seems you need a common contact to start the suggestion engine.

I still consider this a security problem, though not as bad as it was before.

You can only figure out the contacts of someone you are or have been connected with. You can’t do it to a complete stranger, you need to have one contact—invite, connection, or chat—with them first. This isn’t as big a hurdle as you might think.

Journalists still shouldn’t use Skype

Journalists beware! If you’re a journalist, using Skype can compromise your sources. JournalistChris interviews source LittleSnitch on Skype. If JournalistChris later interviews source MafiaDon, MafiaDon will have LittleSnitch suggested as a contact. After all, they both have you as a mutual contact. If MafiaDon knows about this bug, then MafiaDon may agree to Skype with you precisely to see if LittleSnitch then shows up on MafiaDon’s People You May Know list. You really don’t want MafiaDon knowing you’ve been talking with LittleSnitch.

Even with strangers, you can get some information. When you browse random profiles, Skype will tell you how many mutual contacts you have. If you only have a few contacts in Skype, you can guess with some certainty who the mutual contact is.

if MafiaDon did your interview and then immediately looked up LittleSnitch‘s profile, MafiaDon would see that they have one mutual connection—you. That might be enough to tip off MafiaDon that LittleSnitch has been talking to the press.

Lawyers and Consultants, you beware too

The problem I outline for consultants and lawyers in my article remains. If you’re BankruptcyLawyer and you chat with MicrosoftCEO, then later chat with LogitechCEO, LogitechCEO will start seeing MicrosoftCEO as a suggested contact. LogitechCEO might even Skype with you deliberately to see who else gets suggested after the chat.

Indeed, you can imagine someone doing this very deliberately. If EvilBoy seriously wants to do research they could do this:

  1. EvilBoy creates a new skype account, live:innocent_journalist2
  2. EvilBoy approaches BankruptcyLawyer and says “I’m a journalist. I wish to interview you for an article. Connect to me on Skype as live:innocent_journalist2
  3. EvilBoy interviews BankruptcyLawyer
  4. Because BankruptcyLawyer is now the only contact in the live:innocent_journalist2 account, the People You May Know will suggest BankruptcyLawyer’s contacts to EvilBoy
  5. Furthermore, EvilBoy can now look up anyone’s profile on Skype and see if they have a mutual contact. If so, they know that person is in BankruptcyLawyer’s addressbook

This requires a concerted effort on the part of EvilBoy, and it also requires that BankruptcyLawyer add EvilBoy as a contact, accept a connection request from EvilBoy, or chat with EvilBoy at least once.

This Can Still Be Awkward Personally

This is still a problem. Let’s say Ashley uses Skype to meet people for online dating. Ashley might answer personal ads and chat with Syd and Alex. Ashley probably doesn’t want Syd and Alex to start showing up in each other’s contact lists. That could be awkward, especially if one (or both) of the relationships goes farther than a Skype chat. It seems like the privacy problems here are pretty evident.

In summary: the hurdle has risen since I wrote that article. Instead of being able to reverse engineer a stranger’s address book, you can only reverse engineer someone you’re connected to or have chatted with. Once. EvilBoy can still use Skype to work mischief, but now it takes a bit more work. For some people, this may still be too much of a privacy breach from a product that was founded on the premise of confidentiality.


Want effective communication? Drive with their agenda!

Persuasion, influence, or even simple education about a topic is central to most of the communication we send out. But readers today have too much to read and very little attention to spare. If you want to be heard, you need to hook them immediately with something they care about.

This arrived in my LinkedIn inbox today:

Hi! I don’t know you. We’ve never met. But I have a product or service I’d really like you to buy it. So let’s schedule a meeting in your busy schedule where I can convince you to buy my thing. Signed, your new LinkedIn contact.

Wow. Really? I’m impressed. I’m just falling all over myself to cancel the coaching meeting I have scheduled with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company so we can chat about the product you want to sell me. … NOT!

Drive a cold contact from their perspective

If you have a real area of expertise, and you’re attempting to foist it on, er, I mean, share it with someone, temper your sales eagerness by approaching the sale from your customers’ vantage point.

Make an impression on a sales prospect by learning a little about them: Take 2 minutes: visit their website so you know what they do. Read their LinkedIn profile and check out their interests and expertise, so you know where they put their time and attention. Then imagine what problem they might have. If you see someone is interested in “high performing organizations” and has expertise in “leading others,” the problem they might have is in influencing people in parts of the organization where they don’t work.

When you want to pitch them, start from their point of view: from the problem you believe they have. “Hi! You don’t know me, but you may be having trouble leading people beyond your immediate sphere. I’ve helped a lot of people lead from a distance using a variety of technological and in-person solutions. If you’d like a free consultation, let’s talk. Otherwise may I check back in six months?”

If you are selling a high-ticket item, you might even want ask them what problems they’re dealing with. “Hi! You don’t know me, but I work with leaders who are building high-performing organizations and need to lead people at a distance. If you have problems with that, would you mind taking 15 minutes to tell me about it, and I’ll offer any insight into solutions that might work for you?”

This approach is absolutely, utterly, completely not guaranteed to work. But it’s a lot better than reaching out one-on-one to someone with a message that’s all about your needs, rather than theirs.

 

Compromise is the Doorway to Opportunity

My coaching client Cyd wanted to change jobs. Cyd’s work was OK, but not really inspiring. The pay was OK, but not really inspiring. The people? Ok, but not really inspiring. The big benefit of the job, however, is that it was a ten-minute drive from home. Cyd has children and feels very strongly about being close to home.

Cyd crafted a resume, created a LinkedIn profile, and started looking for jobs in nearby neighborhoods. Soon, discreet job inquiries also began flowing in through friends and past colleagues. One especially attractive one offered a 20% higher salary and flex time to work from home. It was also 30 minutes away.

But for Cyd, the tradeoff was worth it. Right before signing on the dotted line, I cried “Stop!” Stop? Why? Because Cyd had compromised, and compromise opens up new opportunities.

Compromise Highlights Flexibility

When starting the job hunt, “10 minutes or closer” seemed like an absolute limit. But when the offers started coming in, Cyd discovered that mountains of cash and work-from-home flex time made the 10-minute drive less important.

This often happens when making decisions. We seek out options that fit what we think we want. Then we get an option that we find acceptable, even though it violates one or more of our guidelines. In that moment, the compromise we’re willing to make opens up new possibilities. Rather than just accept the compromise, scan the landscape using the new criteria. Look for other options that might have initially been overlooked.

Cyd now knows that a higher salary and the ability to work from home can make commute time less important. It’s time for another trip to the job boards and listings, this time to search for opportunities more than 10 minutes away. The caveat is that those jobs must pay a lot more, or have much more flexible work arrangements. Cyd settled on a job 20 minutes away, with 2 days a week of working from home, and a 10%-higher base salary.

Let Compromise Widen Your World

When you’re making a decision, train yourself to pause before you finalize your decision. Review the compromises you’ve made along the way. Then pretend you’d made those compromises from the very beginning, and find out if that changes your approach.

If you end up willing to pay a particular vendor a 30% premium for on-time deliver, stop. Ask yourself which other vendors you could hire for 30% more than you originally expected to spend. You might discover there are vendors who have higher base costs, but a lower premium for on-time deliver, resulting in lower overall costs.

Compromise may be necessary to get a deal done, but it should never be the final step. Compromise tells you where you’re flexible in your criteria, and you can then use that flexibility to uncover new options you would never otherwise consider.

Firing Up Organizations in Tough Times


 
QuestionThings are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?


 
Answer
It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.

Fear motivates immediacy


Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.

Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.

Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.

Leadership motivates coordinated action


Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.

Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.

It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.

Reconnect leadership at the top


The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.

Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.

You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.

Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.

Back to the business, decrease stress


Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.

If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”

Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).

Connect people to forward motivation


As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.

You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.

Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.

Stever Robbins is President of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.

Organizational Learning is No Accident


 
QuestionWhy do companies fail to learn from their mistakes?


 
Answer

With so much riding on success, you would think that companies would be better at learning. Amazingly, it seems as if they fight tooth and nail against learning, often with disastrous results. The reasons, however, make a lot of sense. And once you understand the reasons, you just might be able to make a difference. If not, at least you can feel self-righteous when the insanity starts.

Few of us think much about learning when not in school or in a training environment. But learning doesn’t just happen; it takes reflection and thought. Reflection time used to be built into the world. It took three weeks for a head-office communication to arrive via Pony Express, allowing ample time to ponder and rethink decisions. Now we have overnight letters, junk mail, e-mail, voice mail, fax, cell phones, 30-second-delayed stock quotes, and the expectation that responding immediately is far more important than responding thoughtfully.

Organizations rarely build in time to do thoughtful learning, and when they do, that time is the first to go when emergencies beckon. When we built the original Quicken VISA card, we scheduled a learning debrief and documentation time. But long before the project’s end, other demands squeezed all the slack out of the schedule. The learning review was the first to go. If you don’t do it deliberately, learning won’t happen.

Implementing insights from a learning review is tough. Learning means behavior change. Organizationally, behavior change is daunting.

Think about what organizational change is: It’s changing structure and processes. At the very least, a lot of people must change how they work. Responsibilities, roles, and reporting relationships change. And that’s just in the easy case; learning that your phone system is the bottleneck in your customer service department may demand reworking physical plant and equipment in several locations. Getting the affected people together to coordinate can take weeks. Then new systems must be designed, built, and documented, and everyone must be taught how their jobs have changed. Then there’s still a learning curve for the new procedures. People get up to speed at the new ways of doing things, and only then has the business “learned.” And, oh yes, this all happens in spare time, because the normal workload is still present and has to be carried for the business to survive.

Part of changing the systems and structure is changing the people. A reorg can be done on paper in an afternoon. But changing just one person is hard, even when he or she understands the need for change (Yes, my doctor said to lower my intake of saturated fats, but those cookies at lunch yesterday were so good I just had to eat … six … of them). Ultimately, organizational learning is doomed to failure unless people can learn.

For starters, a lot of learning breaks down because it’s never communicated. Telling someone “Now you report to Sally and your department is no longer sales, it’s account relationships.” still leaves them to figure out how their day-to-day job has changed. They weren’t necessarily privy to the learning discussions, and can’t do anything meaningful without more information about the changes and the context.

Context answers the question “Why is this happening?” It’s especially important when motivating people. People like things to stay the same. But when we find out why the request was made, it suddenly makes sense. Without knowing the “Why?” most change just makes life difficult with no obvious payoff … thus, resistance.

Even if people understand the changes, they may not have the skills for the new job. When Microsoft learned that security matters to customers, Bill Gates proclaimed that all programmers would spend two months just fixing security problems. A great goal, to be sure, but the programmers had spent their careers building systems without regard to security. How can we expect them to suddenly develop the expertise to find—much less fix—any but the simplest security flaws?

And as with any change effort, Microsoft is starting with workers who uniformly lack the skills being developed. Over time, organizational priorities shape the work force. Security-conscious engineers never had a chance to develop their skills at Microsoft, so if they really cared they left years ago for companies more aligned with their style. Those who stayed are the ones who thrive in the “get it out the door and capture the market” mentality. So the change is starting with the employees least likely to intuit how the changes should happen.

Money can come to the rescue by training people. For a simple skill, it can be quick and easy. But training for large skills must be developed, delivered, and practiced. No matter how much we “thrive on chaos” and jump “into the vortex,” new habits take time to develop. Humans only change at a certain rate and we’ve never figured out how to speed that up. The world may change faster than ever, but people just don’t.

The ones who most need to change, however, are the managers. As the organization reshapes itself, resources will shift. That means money and people. Budgets will get slashed. Empires will topple. Even if everyone else is willing, one recalcitrant manager with the right budget authority can halt a learning effort in its tracks. Managers must let go and support the learning for it to happen. Being human, they can have as much difficulty changing their behavior as everyone else.

By now, I’ve probably convinced you that organizational learning is hopeless. But take heart: now that you know why learning is hard, you can deliberately make it easier.

Organizational learning isn’t easy. There’s no perfect solution. Despite the many reasons why learning is hard for individuals and even harder for organizations, it’s just a behavior that can become a habit. Develop the learning habit. Practice moving learning into individual action. Help people change and grow. Over time, the very forces that make change hard will come to your aid: those who don’t like learning will gradually leave, and you’ll attract a culture of people committed to learning. Even when an organization fights it, strong, dedicated action can at least produce pockets of smart business savvy.

How Your Company Can Learn From Mistakes


 
QuestionAny ideas about how to capture lessons learned for a knowledge base—i.e. getting colleagues to NOT fear repercussions of admitting ‘mistakes’ and/or admitting what they did not know?

 
AnswerFirst, the Truth: most of us are afraid to admit mistakes or ignorance for good reason. Culturally, we don’t tolerate mistakes. Since first grade, we’ve been scolded, punished, given poor grades, passed over for promotion, ostracized, and belittled for our mistakes. 2003’s most popular TV series is “American Idol II.” The first several episodes were a countrywide mockery of talentless pop-star wannabes who at least had the courage to take a risk in front of 250 million people. Their reward? Public ridicule.

Sometimes we get the message that mistakes are OK. A well meaning, understanding person—usually from the Human Potential movement—says in a soft, caring voice, “It’s not a mistake, it’s a learning opportunity.” Two days later, the team member who didn’t make the mistake is promoted to team leader. It was a learning opportunity, all right. The learning was, “Don’t screw up, follow the rules, and we won’t punish you. You’ll take home your weekly paycheck, get your gold watch at retirement, and all will be well.”

Society’s message is, “Don’t admit mistakes or bad things will happen.” Before people will embrace their not-knowing, you have to make it safe, even desirable, to take risks.

The organization must support risk taking


Look first to your reward systems. Most organizations reward outcomes: sell the most, get promoted; meet your ship date, get a bonus; meet your earnings projections, get an analyst’s stamp of approval. The rewards come from reaching an outcome, no matter how it was reached. Imagine Laurie, a shoe salesperson for OutcomeCo. Laurie’s sales tactics work on just 1 percent of the customers. Fortunately, the territory is flush with that 1 percent, so meeting quarterly targets is a breeze. Laurie is motivated to milk the 1 percent, rather than take risks to capture the other 99 percent.

And why should Laurie take risks? Risk taking by its nature produces missed targets much of the time. The solution is to reward the learning process as well as the targets. Imagine LearningCo, where the bonus is based on helping the company move faster toward its goals by gathering useful information, developing better ways of doing things, or identifying what not to do again (mistakes). In LearningCo, Laurie is rewarded for capturing the 1 percent, but is also rewarded for noticing market trends, trying cool new sales tactics that don’t work—no doubt involving unicycles, French horns, and a powdered wig—and inventing cool new products that may someday take over the market.

People do what you pay them for, so pay them to learn. Add personal risk-taking plans to your yearly reviews. Ask, “Are you taking enough risks? How can I help you take more?” Applaud in public (and in private!) when someone fails at something wildly, audaciously new. Celebrate whoever has the wackiest new ideas. Otherwise, time spent thinking outside the box is also time spent thinking outside-the-bonus-structure. Given the choice between outside-the-box poverty and inside-the-BMW business-as-usual, don’t be surprised when people choose the BMW.

It’s hard to reward learning in an outcome-based culture; it takes real strength of conviction. Are you willing to pad your schedule with time for failures and experimentation? Will you step up to the plate and give a larger bonus to someone who learned and failed than to someone who reached an important outcome through sheer luck?

A software company rewarded their flagship product’s manager with a Hawaiian vacation when the product shipped. Since the flagship product accounted for 70 percent of the company’s revenue, the manager was given whatever budget and staff he requested to insure success. He had no need to learn; he could just commandeer more resources. Other managers—whose projects were cannibalized without notice for the flagship project—learned to streamline their development and ship on time with limited resources. Taken at face value, it sounds reasonable to reward the flagship manager more than the other managers, yet he contributed much less to the organization’s ongoing strength and capability. By not rewarding the other managers for their learning in a difficult situation, they eventually lost many of their good performers.

Support risk taking one-on-one


Once the organization structures support risk taking, support the behaviors one-on-one. When you see or hear someone pushing the edge of their thinking, step up and ask questions to push further. Brainstorm with them, and walk the example of encouraging people to push their (and the organization’s) edge. When someone has an idea that could lead to great learning, help her pursue it by giving her time and resources.

Also watch how others treat risk taking and mistakes. If you overhear someone making fun of someone else’s mistake or missed targets, ask them, “I wonder if the mistake was because they were trying something new?” Start exploring in conversation whether those present are taking enough risks. If you’re greeted with cynicism and incredulity, “If we did that, we’d just get fired and lose our bonuses,” celebrate! People are handing you their specific objections to risk taking. You can then ask simply, “What would have to happen for you to feel safe enough go out on a limb and try?”

Start learning reviews with facts


Even with one-on-one support for your people, it’s safest to structure project reviews as a review of facts. In fact, there’s no need to make a retrospective personal. Limit analysis to an examination of what did and didn’t happen. Keep personal responsibility out of it, and bring in personal commitment only when the team begins exploring the future. Once learning becomes commonplace, people will become comfortable owning their part in what happens.

At project reviews, the team will assume that its own behavior was flawless. The ubiquitous “they” was the source of all problems. “They” delivered materials late. “They” passed restrictive legislation. “They” didn’t provide the needed direction or focus. A team must get “they” out of its system before considering its own part in what happened.

Have everyone gather together facing a whiteboard (so it’s “us” vs. the whiteboard), and make a big list of everything that went wrong, no matter whose fault. List facts without judgment. If specific people are mentioned, remove the blame and just describe circumstances. “Bob handed in the report late” would become “Report handed in late.”

Then make a second list of all the good things that happened. Be specific. “We supported each other” is too vague. “We stayed late and took on each other’s work in order to meet a tight deadline” is just about right. At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a list of specific actions that can serve as a jumping-off point.

For each “bad” action, ask the team:

  • What choices could we have made to avoid the bad action?
  • What choices did we make that should have been avoided?
  • What misinterpretations of events, motivations, and actions did we make that led to the bad action?
  • What were the correct interpretations?
  • What do all these imply about what we should and shouldn’t do going forward?


For each “good” action, ask:

  • What did we do to cause this?
  • Is there anything we refrained from doing that allowed this to happen?
  • Did our interpretation of events, motivations, and actions help this action come to pass?
  • What do all these imply about what we should do and shouldn’t do going forward?

What you’re after is team learning. If Bob handed in a report three weeks late, the only question that mentions Bob is the question, “How can the team help Bob get the report done on time?” By discussing facts and framing the team’s involvement as one of future joint responsibility, you are shifting from a frame of “Who did what right/wrong?” to “What happened, and how can we help it happen better next time?”

Cultures—learning or not—become self-fulfilling prophecies. If your company has a conservative culture, it’s probably full of people who self-selected not to take risks and not to admit mistakes. Shifting that culture means addressing fears with substance: make sure your organization supports risk-taking in its rewards and performance measures. Model that support in your daily interactions. And even then, you’ll get the best learning when you carefully separate judgments from facts, and keep people engaged in finding solutions rather than rehashing blame. Our society does a great job of squelching learning instincts, but with patience, care, and precise communication, you can make it safe for a group to re-create a culture of learning and exploration.