The film takes a twist when Phil finds himself forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over. After attempting in several ways to dismiss the time trap in which he finds himself, he finally resorts to learning. He learns to be more observant of his behavior and its consequences. He learns to listen to others and to consider their perspective and their value. He learns to enjoy life’s small pleasures. He learns the value of gratitude and how to extend himself to others in need. He learns to take his work seriously and himself lightly. The film is terrific, and I greatly admire its importance for all learning professionals.
Periodically, all of us feel like we are trapped in Groundhog Day. We seem to face similar problems over and over. We’re forced to deal repeatedly with our habits and their consequences. Each of us know certain types of people who provide us with special challenges, and these people seem to reappear in different forms until, as a last resort, we learn about ourselves and how to take a more effective approach to dealing with them. You probably have heard the popular definition for the word “crazy”: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. While there is an element of truth in this comic definition, it is more complicated than that. Dr. David Morrison has pointed out that while modest changes in approach may be helpful, wholesale changes can leave others completely flummoxed and unsure of who we really are. Making several changes at the same time can also leave us baffled about which of the changes or parts thereof really made a difference.
I had a personal experience with this recently when my wife Susie and I attended my son Daniel’s high-school graduation ceremony. Daniel did very well. We were both filled with pride. The ceremony was energizing, even inspiring. But when the ceremony ended, disaster struck. We (I) misunderstood the directions about the location of the photo shoot in the side lobby. We got zero pictures, which made the whole thing a bust for Susie. It would have been so great to have pictures of Dan in his robe with all of his friends. But now, we had nothing to memorialize Daniel’s graduation. Susie was devastated.
This was where my years as a crack consultant, human resource expert and chief learning officer came into play. As she cried on the way home, I sensitively blurted out, “Oh come on, Sus, they’re only pictures!” Immediately, I knew I should not have said that. This choice of words is not at the top of my list of advice for others in similar situations.
I would urge all learning and development experts to make a list of responses, based on experience, that they will never give again. Consider it carefully, put it on a small laminated card, place it in the bottom of your cereal bowl so you see it every morning, and carry it with you for use in critical situations. High-intensity, emotionally charged events like graduation draw us close together and expose us for how ignorant we can be. At times like these, we need all the help we can get.
What is true of us as individuals is also true about our organizations. “Learning organizations” take stock of the impact of their initiatives, both successes and failures. The Army Office of Lessons Learned is a terrific example of an organization dedicated to wiping out the Groundhog Day phenomenon. Organizations that grow and learn are constructively self-critical without being self-condemning. They have systematic ways to capture the lessons of experience and to ensure that tacit knowledge becomes shared understanding and results in better practices.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.