The Importance of Focus

Edison BulbI have an old-fashioned Edison bulb desk lamp. It’s to remind me to focus (and because I like steampunk, industrial design). A 40-watt incandescent bulb will barely light a room, but a 40-watt laser can cut through aluminium, leather, and wood. It is the same amount of light energy, just focussed instead of being diffused.

The same principle applies to our attention, work and teams. Diffused and scattered there is not much impact. Focussed and concentrated that energy is very impactful. Removing distractions and focussing on a single deliverable at a time allows us to complete our work faster with fewer defects.

Aligning a team to a common vision and purpose directs their energy towards it. No longer diffused to fulfil a dozen competing demands, effort is channelled to the shared goal. Distractions come in many forms. Fancy tools, cool architecture, requests from different groups. If we do not pay attention to focus, our laser beam team becomes an Edison bulb, it is busy and glowing, but not very effective.

So, be cautious of distractions. Monitor time and energy directed to the project goal compared to energy directed to peripheral activities. Work life is like a greased pole with a 40-watt Edison bulb at the bottom and a 40-watt laser at the top. We must always be striving upwards to focus because as we relax we slide down towards distraction.

(Also visible in the picture is my “Do The Work” Post-it. another reminder to focus and a pointer to work on the same topic by Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield. I guess I could get a 40-watt laser too, but that would scorch the cat rather than amuse it. Plus yes, it is snowing here and yes, my windows are old)

They are “Lessons to be Learned”, not “Lessons Learned”

The suggestions, observations and ideas we capture at retrospectives are not Lessons Learned. That would imply we have already learned from them and will not make that mistake again. Instead, they are Lessons-to-be-Learned which is subtly different but stresses the most important part, which is we now need to learn something.

Learning involves several steps. David Kolb, an educational theorist, describes a 4-step learning process:

  1. Concrete Experiences (What we already know)
  2. Observation and Reflection (What our retrospectives help us identify)
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (Thinking about the problems and designing potential solutions)
  4. Active Experimentation (Trying something new)

These stages act as part of an experimental learning cycle. The last step, Active Experimentation, creates new concrete experiences and builds on what we already know. Experimental Learning Cycle

It is easy to confuse the retrospective actions of Observation and Reflection (Stage 2) as gathering lessons learned. However, this is not the case, instead it is just one step in the process. We then need to determine a solution (Stage 3) and run experiments to learn from them (Stage 4). Only then might we actually learn something.

To remind us that simply gathering ideas and suggestions for improvements is not the same as learning, I suggest we stop using the term “Lessons Learned” and instead useLessons to be learned”.