Reflections and retrospectives – harnessing cultural learnings

case study culture Jan 30, 2019

“Following the successful completion of a large project, a financial services organisation conducted a “retrospective” to identify the project success factors. The retrospective identified many activities that were well executed, but little that distinguished this from other projects. Not satisfied with this, the project manager sought to understand what was unique or different about this project.

The most critical difference turned out to be that team members felt safe to share their concerns about aspects of the project. Yet, this was not always the case in this particular project. So the project manager set about understanding what enabled a safe space to speak up, as this was a recurring organisational challenge.” – Adaptive Cultures client case study extract

Experience tells us that most organisations may capture technical learnings of a project.  However, very few are able to truly capture the adaptive learnings and get to the bottom of challenges such as not safe to speak up. While capturing the technical learnings can lead to incremental improvement it rarely leads to transformational change.

How can we identify the adaptive learnings of a project that have the potential to enable a more effective organisational culture? How can we meaningfully apply these learnings to future projects?

We believe there are three key steps to transferring project success into scalable insights that will progress the organisational culture and strategic agenda:

1. Deepen enquiry (explore the terrain)

Before gathering data, identify a series of exploratory questions that enable getting to the ‘root cause’ of the success of the project. This is crucial in uncovering what adaptive learning took place that can be applied in other contexts.  Some key questions to consider include:


  • What were the mindsets, beliefs and behaviours of people that enabled success?
  • What mindsets, beliefs and behaviours inhibited success?
  • What did people learn about themselves? What beliefs, perspectives or mindsets shifted as a result?


  • How did the project members and teams learn together through the process?
  • What ways of working and shared problem-solving enabled or inhibited success?
  • How were current cultural inhibitors discouraged or eliminated, and how were aspirational behaviours encouraged or acknowledged?

Structural and Systemic:

  • What were the environmental conditions in the organisation and in the external environment (regulatory, funding, customer need, political etc.) that enabled success in this project? What were the environmental factors that inhibited success?
  • What were some crucial moments, actions or events that enabled the project to progress or caused it to stall or regress?
  • What structures, processes and business rhythms were put in place that enabled success? Which ones inhibited success?
  • Which success factors are readily replicable across the organisation?

2. Capture the adaptive insights (identify the conditions for growth)

Put in place methods that capture the insights from Step 1 which identify what made this project successful. Often, the focus of capturing insights will be on the technical success factors (good communication, budgets, project management) and potentially gloss over the adaptive learning that occurred. The adaptive learning is critical in a complex system, and is very often least visible to those that most need the learning.

Methods to capture adaptive insights include:

  • Dialogue workshops with participants from within the project AND include people external to the project who would have been close enough to have observed some success factors
  • Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic based on the ‘culture’ within the project team to capture data and qualitative comments (compare and contrast this to traditional ways of working in the organisation)
  • One to one conversation with key stakeholders (either those that were most influential in evolving the culture, or those who had a close view of what was occurring); seek out people who may also have a different or unique perspective
  • Also, capture what didn’t work; what was trialled and adapted and what learnings can be applied for future projects

3. Influence beliefs about what is possible (prepare the ground)

Share the learnings and outcomes broadly in order to shift organisational beliefs. Even when insights are acknowledged, deeply held organisational beliefs and narratives can inhibit people’s willingness to believe that evolution is possible. Therefore, a broad approach with multiple pieces of confirming evidence are often required. Consider each of the following:

  • Identify communication channels and methodologies (stories, videos, testimonials, voice of the customer etc.)
  • Develop and distribute artefacts that reinforce success factors
  • Identify advocates from outside the project who are willing to engage with others and explore how culture made a difference. Blackhall & Pearl, specialists in applying artificial intelligence to understand human behaviour, suggests that culture change can happen 8 times faster through harnessing social influence
  • Encourage leaders to cultivate an environment that enables experimentation with new ways of working. This may include celebrations of learnings (particularly from unsuccessful experiments), providing “air cover” from parts of the organisation that may be less receptive and being actively involved in an experiment

“Deeper enquiry and reflection led to the realisation that early in the project, people were sharing concerns privately rather than openly in project meetings, and this led to misaligned activities, slow progress and significant rework. At a critical juncture in the project, a senior executive took responsibility for how their behaviour may have been influencing team member’s willingness to speak up. This honesty had a profound impact and deepened other team member’s responsibility. People began speaking up, the senior executive demonstrated much deeper listening and the project turned around very quickly.”Adaptive Cultures client case study extract

Applying these insights to other projects and organisational culture

Identifying an appropriate project and testing and validating the success factors is crucial to progressing organisational culture and establishing a more adaptive organisation. An appropriate project should have importance to the business (connected to purpose and strategy) and have a high chance of being able to replicate previous successes. Once the project is identified:

  • Start with a small pilot and test to validate success factors; the objective is to learn and adapt
  • Based on the learnings from the first pilot, refine success factors and methodology and run additional pilots if necessary
  • Scale-up projects and continue to iterate and refine (so that it becomes part of continual learning and evolution)

“Through sharing these insights at forums, videos and via other initiatives, this story became folklore in the organisation. and more people began speaking up. It took several iterations over several months for a “speaking up culture” to become more common, and it is now an integral part of the organisational culture.” – Adaptive Cultures client case study extract

Identifying and applying adaptive learnings goes well beyond a project. A culture that enables deep learning and rapid adaptation and evolution is a strategic advantage in our constantly evolving world.

If these themes resonate with you, you can find out more about the Adaptive Cultures framework here.

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