Monday, 1 February 2010

Winning at the expense of learning

After Tony Blair’s bravura performance in front of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, it seems unlikely that the Inquiry will achieve its aim: “to learn the lessons of the Iraq conflict”. Who now believes any new lessons will be learned, given the standard of questioning? Who even believes lessons could be learned, given the inquiry format? If Tony Blair’s cabinet government was broken, so too is the public inquiry as a means of learning lessons. Maybe a different structure is needed.

As a public spectacle, an inquiry may show leaders being held to account. With forensic questioning the process may reveal a few things we didn’t already know. But as a means of learning, forget it. As for Blair’s own learning, he now seems to be arguing for doing to Iran what he did to Iraq. A further problem is that inquiries take years to set up, hear evidence and publish a report; meanwhile energy has dissipated and people’s interest has moved on, as have most of the players.

The inquisitorial process only serves to endorse a leader’s natural game: that is to win, whatever the context. They are not there to learn, as they see it, even though leadership and learning should be bedfellows. In an inquiry, responsibility for learning is delegated to its members, how they write their report, who reads it, and why and how they read it. Learning is left to chance, is not to the fore or overtly happening in the public space.

Few leaders are seriously interested in learning. When Sir Fred Goodwin was determined to take over ABN Amro, or Irene Rosenfeld was fighting to take over Cadbury, they were simply trying to win. Any subsequent examination of whether these deals were good news – for shareholders (of both companies), customers, employees and communities – would simply cause them to defend their judgment, not assist anyone’s learning, whether that of their questioners, their successors or colleagues.

So, in a different format, what questions might an Inquiry ask if its purpose was for all the parties to learn; that is, inquiry members, interviewees themselves, politicians at large, media, the military and victims?

Here are some alternative questions to prompt reflection:

How else might you have proceeded?
What other options did you have?
Was there anything that prevented you from … ?
What stories were you telling yourself about … ?
How might it have seemed from …’s standpoint?

That would be a very different and reflective learning process – for everyone. It might lack the voyeuristic appeal of a gladiatorial chamber, but it might help save future lives.