Authentically Learning Lessons

A challenge for any organisation is authentically learning from experience, both good and bad. A significant part of the challenge often comes from culture, though there are process and role aspects too. Thought I’d share some thoughts from experience in a range of organisations in this - as usual comments / advice are welcome thank you – I find you never stop learning in this area!

1/. Quite often, so-called “Lessons Learnt” are captured and filed, sometimes in a central database, other times in separate lessons learnt reports – but the problem frequently arises that they are not acted on for a variety of reasons. One organisation described such a situation to me as a Vicious Circle where process & procedures are neglected because they are not updated to reflect learning, and lessons learnt processes are not well regarded, and done in a tick the box kind of way, because the perception is that they won’t lead anywhere.

This kind of situation is obviously no good - we need knowledge from lessons to flow…

2/. A useful step is to change the name from Lessons Learnt to Lessons Identified.

Also, the process that creates them needs to be:

a/. A facilitated process (facilitated by someone outside the team) that sets out the right behaviours to enable the team to speak openly;

b/. Starts by talking about lessons from successes first before moving on to failures / disappointments;

c/. Outputs lessons that are not vague or generic (such as “communicate well” or “spend your money wisely”) but instead provide advice in future-oriented Specific & Actionable Recommendation (SAR) format, or as near to that as possible.

The advice is aimed at future teams; this is stressed throughout the meeting;

d/. The advice is packaged up by emergent theme and provided with business context, eg what the activity / project objectives were and the extent to which they were met;

It takes some experience to facilitate such processes but they work well. It’s not about heroes or villains, but simply an ethos of constructive learning from experience.

3/. Then it’s a case of making sure that the output advice is acted upon in a disciplined way. The process needs to be tailored to the organisation, but it is likely to include principles of:

a/. Clarifying which lessons are of which reach / scope, eg:

  • Tier 1: local team only
  • Tier 2: wider project or function
  • Tier 3: corporate-wide

b/. Identifying actions to take the learning forward, and who is required to deliver them – and by when.

c/. For Tiers 1 and 2, local KM Managers (with support from Quality) can check that actions are being delivered, reporting to Project / Functional Heads as part of ongoing Knowledge Plan maintenance.

d/. For Tier 3, a corporate wide “Lessons Review Group” (LRG) can be set up. This is attended by Heads of Depts and facilitated by the central KM team. The LRG meets every (say) 3 months and reviews submitted lessons and any suggested actions that come with them. Actions are assigned together with who is accountable. The LRG process also reviews progress on delivery of past lessons and regularly reports to management on progress of action delivery and any emerging themes / main messages.

e/. Actions may be about such things as upgrading corporate knowledge base (eg upgrading existing processes / procedures or adding new ones) or informing a community of practice / team / individual or upgrading a training course(s) – or a combination of these things.

f/. It’s about moving from a Lessons Learnt Database, which tends to be a place where lessons are often filed & forgotten, to a temporary repository for Lessons Identified which is a part of a much wider learning system. The knowledge must flow and not get stuck somewhere.

Roles and governance are in place to make sure lessons are carried forward. The role of leadership and governance is critical in this, setting an expectation for a system with clear roles, processes and enabling technology.

4/. After a while you start to see:

a/. A virtuous circle, where staff can see that processes are methodically changing because they are informed by learning, and people are also more likely to want to participate in learning processes.

b/. Themes emerging, both where the organisation is strong and where it is weak; it’s hard to overstate the value from this. Deep and underlying themes start to appear which many will have seen or sensed, but can now be set out and quantified together with their impact and priority to be addressed.

c/. An increasing willingness by staff / projects / teams to learn-before getting into activity, and also at regular intervals during – and not just at the end. Indeed, regular learning-during reveals fewer surprises at the end of the project.

d/. Projects and Functions need owned and maintained KM Plans to set out how they are going to learn, using which processes and when they are to take place – and also how they are going to import specific knowledge from, and export to, the wider organisation.

More than anything this is about culture change, both bottom up activity and top down setting of expectation, supported by proactive communications to staff describing what is happening and key messages / highlights.