What's wrong with Lessons Learned? Part 1.

I’m not sure how many parts this series of posts is going to have, but let’s make a start with this one...


 1. Lessons learned is a noun.  Learning is a verb.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of learning from experience so that we improve our own performance, and the future performance of others  has lost its oomph, its focus and its impact.  Instead, we hear people talking in abstract terms about “doing their lessons learned”. What on earth does that mean?

When it becomes the object of a sentence rather than the active verb, then it becomes another item on a tick-list – a necessary chore– the organisational equivalent of flossing our teeth. We focus on the lesson (which is usually a couple of sentences in a document, or a bullet point on a flipchart), rather than what we can learn from the lesson, and what we will change as a result.

It’s an odd thing.  My children don’t learn lessons from school – they learn fromlessons, and they learn in lessons.  The lesson is the beneficial environment created by their teacher to help them to gain new insights and know how to apply them to problems.  There’s plenty of room for improvement in the way we design and portray our organisational lessons, just ask a teacher.

So rather than brandishing our flipcharts or reports and saying “here are our lessons learned!” – we should be saying.

“Here is a summary of some lessons. Now, what will we learn from them?”

This leads us away from “lessons learned” as a tick-list item, and leads us nicely to the million-dollar question:

“What will we do differently and what actions do we need to take - for ourselves or for the organisation?”

The next questions are:

"Could these lessons be relevant to anyone else, now or in the future?  How can we ensure that they make sense and provide context and contacts for the next project or team?

These questions move us into action, rather than focusing on writing down a lesson as the end-game.

Or to put it another way:

Bullet points kill knowledge.  Questions resurrect it.

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