By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: Learning from positive, negative feedback

I have been sitting in my office re-reading a great book that I have decided to give as one of the choices students will have for a book to read and report on over their "reading period" in December, after courses but before finals. (Yes, the time to make revisions for courses that will be taught starting in September is now, or earlier. We are making revisions in the required core course in public management I teach Master's of Public Policy students at the Kennedy School to include more material on "leadership.") The book is called "Making the Impossible Possible" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006), by Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan Business School and Marc Lavine of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.

The book is an account of how it was possible to complete the nuclear waste cleanup at the former Department of Energy weapons production site at Rocky Flats, Co. (outside Denver) in a tiny fraction of the original time and budget projected.

The senior author, Kim Cameron, is a scholar closely associated with a movement called "positive organizational studies," which seeks to do scholarly research on organizational practices that promote outstanding levels of effort, accomplishment, and personal satisfaction in organizations. Rather than studying failure and dysfunction (as many scholars prefer -- academics are like journalists in this regard), positive organizational studies scholars wish to learn more about what produces what they often call "flourishing," "abundence," of "positive deviance." (Check out their website here.)

Towards the beginning of the book, the authors cite another academic study from the Journal of Sports Pyschology (of all places) where groups of bowlers were shown different film about their own prior performance bowling as a feedback mechanism. One group was shown film of their hitting strikes or spares, while the other was shown film where they didn't do so. In the experiment, the bowlers given feedback showing their successes subsequently improved significantly more than those shown film of their failures.

This struck my eye because, of course, in the current fear-industry driven public management environment, people in government are in effect shown film only of their failures, never their successes. As I have written in other contexts, that is not the best way to improve public performance.

By the way, read this book for lots more than just this one example. It is fascinating that these business-school based authors have chosen a public sector example to illustrate principles of outstanding organizational performance. There is a lot here about management and leadership in general, and performance-based contracting in particular (the Rocky Flats effort was a contract partnership between the Department of Energy and the engineering firm CH2MHill), which was such an outstanding success that has gotten virtually no attention.

What do you think? Post a comment on this blog (registration required) or send an e-mail to and we will post it for you.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 22, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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