All organizations learn to one degree or another. It is simply a case of whether the learning is improving the organization or damaging the organization. In some organizations, the spiral of learning is negative: people learn how to avoid nasty managers, how to keep their jobs and how to avoid blame.
Software development abounds with examples of negative learning, whether it is program code that should not be touched or time estimates that are padded – or reduced – to make them more acceptable regardless of the work required. Negative learning can be considered sub-optimal because it creates other problems.
Positive learning occurs when people and teams are learning to improve the way in which they work in an optimal fashion. One example is the points-based work estimates used by Agile teams. Over time, teams converge on an understanding of the work value of a point without any rigid definition of what a point is.
Both positive and negative learning can be self-reinforcing. We can think of them as spirals (Figure 5.1). Negative learning tends to lead to more negative learning – problems multiply because our solutions create more problems. Positive learning, on the other hand, leads us a greater understanding and reveals further opportunities for learning and improvement.
In a negative spiral, each badly solved problem is not completely solved. Problems are stored up for the future and, most probably, people lose motivation. Future problems ...