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 safeproduce 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. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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