The fallacy of "lessons learned"

Ah, the “lessons learned” meeting: that corporate ritual convened in the name of learning from experience -- normally at the end of a long project -- in order to list the issues encountered and avoid them in the future. Or so we hope.

I can’t stand these meetings because I disagree with the premises they rest on:

Reality can be understood as a simple process of cause and effect: “We did A, but got Y instead of X. Next time let’s do B to get X.”  Learning is separated from doing: “We don’t have time to learn now; let’s get X and later we’ll take time to learn.” Change in how we operate happens if we identify what we did wrong and commit not to repeat it.

So, what’s wrong with these ideas? They sound benign, even logical. But, while I’m in favor of learning from mistakes (who isn’t?), if we adopt the mindset of fixing rather than creating, it just doesn’t work.

Reality is more complex than a simple process of cause and effect. The idea that a variable -- among hundreds -- is uniquely responsible for a mistake is simplistic and misleading, as action happens in a context and many forces are at play. The mindset "A didn't work, then let's do B instead" fails to understand that maybe “A” was perfectly fine, but with the presence of factors (like “C”), “B” will fail too. Not to mention that variables change as the system changes.

Ignoring this systems approach, the "lessons learned" session delivers facile lists of dos and don’ts without getting a deeper sense of reality -- all in the name of quick and decisive action.

I can imagine my biased-for-action readers reacting to these words with suspicion: isn't action and experience how we learn best? Yes, but only if we take the time to design meaningful actions designed as experiments, open hypotheses to be tested whose purpose is to give us a better picture of reality.

The point here is that learning is not just a correct response to stimuli, the right action in a set of choices, but an integral part of doing and growing. A researcher may have a specific idea of learning: the mouse is learning because after several wrong attempts it is now pressing the correct lever to get the cheese. But this is restrictive and hard to adapt to complex projects. Unlike the mouse, learning for most of us is often an internal job, hard to prove or identify -- and one that often redefines how we make sense of reality.

Deep learning can’t just be about observable actions. It's about reflection, understanding the big picture, doubting. Then it's about action for the sake of making sure the next move is a good one. Unlike the mouse, our learning is not about being right or wrong, but about redefining, reframing and testing reality. Learning happens in action, not away from it; separating learning from action only makes sense for simple, repeatable processes, not for the tasks of “knowledge workers” in today’s organizations.

Identifying errors and committing not to repeat them is an ineffective way to change. It’s my experience that the pearls of wisdom identified in lessons learned meetings are either misunderstood or forgotten. People don’t remember how to apply lessons from a project that happened long ago to a new one. Even assuming that an efficient knowledge system exists to preserve findings, situations change and grant different priorities or prescriptions for success.

Real change comes from a deeper understanding of reality, not from a superficial commitment to avoid one’s past mistakes. It comes from understanding complex interrelations and systemic implications at the collective level, not from individual promises.

Need more fodder? I think "lessons learned" meetings are also:

  • Biased, because the implicit activism that advocates for change every time something doesn’t go as planned never doubts the mind that's making the calculation or the nature of the work being performed. You may to read that sentence twice, but it’s important. What if things must go badly before they get better? What if the pain we feel is part of the process rather than evidence that something didn't work?
  • Conservative, because they elegantly empower status-quo folks to appear to advocate for change. Many a behind has been covered by these rituals, all the while dodging deeper questions that might open a can of worms. This is a perfect strategy for conflict-averse operators. In truth, dealing with symptoms – and never root causes – does ensure job security.
  • Narrowly defined, because they focus on a single project that happened in a context that often can’t be discussed. Try to enlarge the perspective in one of these meetings (I have) and you may be silenced in the name of the agenda and hear the famous refrain, "This is above my paygrade!"

I hear you: "Thanks, Adriano; but now what?" I have these suggestions:

  • Do a pre-mortem instead of post-mortem. In my teams, we imagine that the project has already happened and we are examining the issues encountered. This is powerful because it allows you to take measures early enough to deal with the predictable snafu you will find on your way.
  • Institutionalize 30-minute learning sessions during the project, not at the end. If you explicitly dedicate time to learn, you will not only create a more effective project timeline, but build the capacity of your team too.
  • Create a mechanism to deal with bigger project contextual issues. As some inevitable contextual issue will emerge, deal with them at a higher level through an early agreement with key stakeholders. This way taking a stand is already built-in to your project charter.
  • Develop your team’s ability to be comfortable with ambiguity. Cultivating this capacity will equip your team with key skills to successfully operate in organizations in general.

Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank "Team Leadership Program" and of the State Department "Experiential Learning Program". He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.

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