24 Jun 2020

Looking back illuminates the future

Deb Hart

As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  As someone increasingly called in to look to the past and review organisations or projects, it is the ability to see mistakes, that is at the heart of reviews.

Many organisations are comfortable with business as usual and excited by new ventures, but many are poor when it comes to looking back at what was done and what could be done better.  For some any analysis that is done is simply financial - did we make money?  For others, it is a mere sentence or two in an annual report.  For yet others, they are too busy keeping their head above water or centred on the next project, to review anything.  But it is a rearview analysis that enables organisations to discern how they are doing and what is worth repeating ... or not.

There is much to commend reviewing, simply as a self-review, but an independent review brings with it objectivity and the more uninterrupted view.  It makes the review of particular use to a board and senior management to better understand what has worked and what hasn’t.

One of the by-products of an independent review is that people can get heard, quite often those who would feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences with anyone from within the organisation itself.  That can be a range of people - staff, contractors, suppliers, customers for examples.  Being heard, particularly for someone who feels they have been wronged, can be cathartic.  But it also provides a wider view than the echo chamber that many of us inhabit.

The reviews that receive the most sunlight are those that occur because of a scandal - the sexual harassment allegations at law firm, Russell McVeagh or the same kind of allegations within the Labour Party, are recent examples.  These reviews provide an avenue for discovering what happened, what went wrong, if anything, and the review recommendations provide a checklist of sorts for the organisation to use to improve for the future.

Whist reviews can be completely confidential to the organisation that sought it, public scandals often call for the review to be made public.

Sometimes the review is much like an organisational audit to provide a 360 degree overview.  The review I undertook of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme was like that.  It was required by statute and it had me considering whether the Scheme was meeting its own strategic objectives and legislative principles.  It was! 

In other times the review focuses in on a work programme that might be problematic or simply new.  This enables a targeted look at a specific area.

Whichever type of review, you consider, looking in the rearview mirror sure can illuminate the future!