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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Feedback, Tough Love, and "Failing Well"

Mike Madison and Michael Risch have thoughtful posts on so-called "tough love" workshops, the former's informed by five years as the Associate Dean for Research at Pittsburgh.  The tension Mike Madison described is not unique to academia:  on one hand, the only way you get better is to get criticized; on the other hand, (a) getting criticized isn't fun, and (b) do people understand that something can be both good or on the right track, but at the same time flawed and worth a lot of criticism and correction?  On the other hand (that makes three), maybe the piece just ... sucks.  That is indeed the paradox and the problem of establishing what, in jargon, is the "learning organization."

Unknown An anecdote.  I've blogged elsewhere about watching the Colts-Titans game over New Years' weekend this year and realizing that I knew two of the people in the NFL officiating crew.  The buff referee, Ed Hochuli, is a Phoenix, Arizona lawyer who did some products liability litigation for us when I was the general counsel of Great Lakes Chemical.  The side judge (see left) was my long-time friend, Ron Torbert, a Harvard Law School educated lawyer, my former associate at Dykema Gossett in Detroit, the general counsel of our safety restraint business at AlliedSignal, and now the general counsel of Barton-Malow, a big construction company in Michigan.  Ron has spent the last twenty or more years working his way up the referee chain, from high school to Division II to the MAC to the Big Ten, and now he's finished his first year as an NFL official.

Anyway, the story is about Ron.  The reason Ron came to work at AlliedSignal was that he was simply the best young associate at Dykema, and I stole him away.  The first project he and I worked on together was the appeal brief in a case called Borman's, Inc. v. Michigan Property & Casualty Guaranty Association.  I was a young partner; he was a new associate.  Ron wrote the first draft of the brief, and I "bled" in red ink all over it.  I remember Ron telling me how freaked out he was; what I tried to explain was what a pleasure it had been to work on the brief.  The structure and the ideas were there; I was shaping and sanding and reacting.  The point is that it was a mutual learning experience.  (You can see from the photo that Ron continues to get feedback on his performance; I'm not sure this is a learning experience.)

I have spent fifteen years in a big law firm, eleven years in a big corporation, and six years in academia, and I'm here to tell you that there's not a shred of difference among them in their inherent tendency not to be learning organizations - in which people "fail well."  There's just as much palpable fear, unless managed out of the organization, about not getting tenure as there is about not making partner as there is about getting fired. Learning organizations arise from a shared commitment to growing that is at once confident, humble, open, honest, blunt, empathetic, caring, charitable, and judgmental!  In learning organizations, leaders and teachers are first and foremost learners.  In Michael Risch's terminology (his post is entitled "The Virtue of Getting Shredded"), we are all equally capable of being shredders and shreddees.  And as good as we might be, sometimes we produce something that well ... sucks.  Ask the man who cringes when he reads some of his own writing. 

Having said that, I've not yet experienced the kind of intense workshop Mike and Michael describe.  As Mike concludes, a learning environment is the key; I've no doubt that a couple pompous and self-important asses could ruin that pretty quickly.  I've given the usual "faculty enrichment" lunch talks on my papers, and while they're fabulous for the ego (notwithstanding that after I'm gone they're no doubt saying "who was that buffoon?"), I've not yet had one really make a paper better.  On the other hand, I've had friends go over papers line by line and section by section and say things like "I don't get what you are saying here" or "cut this whole section out" or "you've got too much going on" and invariably the paper gets better.  But that's not a learning organization; it's a learning relationship. 

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on February 24, 2011 at 07:08 PM | Permalink


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