Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 7;   February 17, 2010:

The Politics of Lessons Learned

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, III

USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, III, tells war corres­pon­dents about the sinking of his ship. Photographed on Guam in August 1945, following the rescue of her survivors. On July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis delivered to a base on Tinian, parts of the bomb known as Little Boy, which would be used against Hiroshima. She then left for Guam, and after departing Guam, she was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Over 300 of her crew of 1196 died in the attack, and of the 880 who went into the water, all but 317 were lost to sharks. In November, in a Naval Court Martial, Capt. McVay was convicted of Negligence in "Suffering a Vessel of the Navy to be Hazarded." His sentence was remitted and he was returned to active duty, retiring in 1949. Still, disgraced, he committed suicide in 1968. In October of 2000, Congress passed and the President signed legislation declaring that Captain McVay's military record should reflect exoneration for the loss of his command and the lives of the men who died in that disaster.

Courts martial share much in common with retrospectives. One common feature is the goal of uncovering of truth. In its handling of Capt. McVay's court martial the U.S. Navy exhibited several of the effects described here, including the consequences of compromised safety of witnesses, a lack of emphasis on what was done correctly, and very limited explorations of the contributions to the disaster by those with organizational power.

For more about the loss of the Indianapolis, visit Indianapolis.org. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, courtesy Wikimedia.

A list of "lessons learned" is usually among the deliverables of retrospectives and after-action reviews. Since listing lessons is different from learning them, there's room to question the import of the lessons learned exercise. The lists themselves are also worth examining. Here are some suggestions for anyone hoping to gather truly valuable lessons learned.

Gathering lessons learned is necessary but not sufficient
Many organizations do gather lessons learned, and that's useful. The next step, also necessary, is using the data collected to determine how to incorporate those lessons into organizational processes and culture. To gain from the exercise we must spend real money and allocate real effort to incorporating what we learn into future projects and ongoing processes.
Reviewing lessons learned is essential to planning
Lessons learned are valuable only when our successors learn from them. When we add lessons to the knowledge base, how do future planners learn about these new lessons? Reviewing past lessons learned during the planning process is one good way to propagate the benefits.
Safety is essential
Candid self-assessment is more likely when the assessors feel safe. If self-assessors feel that acknowledgement of responsibility for errors leads to retribution, they will (justifiably) withhold truth. Worse, they might suggest that responsibility lies elsewhere when it doesn't, or they might emphasize contributions from elsewhere to a far greater extent than they merit. A sense of safety in retrospectives is essential for eliciting Truth.
The term "Lessons Learned" is misleading
Many "lessons learned" aren't actually lessons we've learned. Often they're lessons we still need to learn. When we apply the label "lesson learned" to something we haven't yet learned, we enhance the risk that we'll move on without actually learning it. "Lessons To Be Learned" is usually a more accurate term.
Beware lessons that others should learn
When teams Candid self-assessment is
more likely when the
assessors feel safe
produce lessons learned, they sometimes include prescriptions for educating others, especially when pointing out these deficits relieves the team of responsibility for some errors. For a Lessons Learned exercise, lessons for others to learn are out of scope. Within scope are lessons about coping with others' needs for learning. But even discussing the coping can be difficult if safety is compromised, and if the others in need of learning are powerful enough.
We also learn from what went right
Lists of lessons learned that include insights based on things that went well, in addition to those insights based on more troubled parts of the effort, probably present a more complete view. Understanding the reasons for success is at least as valuable as understanding the reasons for failure.

It's curious how so many organizations gather lessons learned about project efforts, but fail to gather lessons learned about the lessons learned effort. They probably don't know whether or not the lessons learned effort is worthwhile. I wonder what they would learn if they took a look at it…and I wonder why they aren't looking at it now. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power of Situational Momentum  Next Issue

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