Lessons Learned
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duct tapeHow can we get Lessons Learned to work?

"We've GOT to stop constantly re-inventing the wheel here!" Agreed. But that impulse too often is translated to; "SO, that means we need to capture and replicate Best Practices... which then leads to seeking technology-based Knowledge Management "solutions" – problem is, the “build it and they will come” approach has consistently failed to deliver on the promise of creating a learning organization... and not-learning continues.

So skip the duct tape. What's missing is not more technology, but an adjustment in how we think about learning lessons in organizations.

Find the "missing links" in producing value from lessons

Try a few questions on for size; Are reflection and learning the same thing? How much value have lessons learned produced here in the last year? At what level do we expect the payoff in Lessons will happen - individual, team, or inter-team? When is a Lesson Learned actually learned? Most people draw a blank.

Why? First of all, we too rarely look at Lessons Learned in terms of how and through who value will be produced. Second, all too often the lack of value-creation by Lessons is because the regular actions and habits that create or leverage learning is not in anyone's job description–in fact, in many settings it is actively discouraged by existing structures and norms, however unintentionally.

Some organizations "capture" lessons but typically do not have pathways for filtering for value - and thereby getting the truly valuable lessons implemented and leveraged... there are "missing links" in the end to end process of producing and leveraging learning. Fixing such linkages pays off doubly because it leads to implementing improvements while also shoring up the sort of foundations that sustain a learning organization.

Make the LL process efficient... and more effective at the same time

Let's face it, people are very busy. So if the organization expects people to invest time and effort in a Lessons Learned process, that process must have structures that make it efficient. It also must become a trusted pathway by which those lessons that are worth adopting or refining by others are selected and fed forward, whether as part of planning or institutionalized as stable improvements in existing work processes. Most people do NOT want to re-invent the wheel–unless re-inventing takes less time and effort than finding and adapting a wheel that fits their needs, or if they get more credit for reinventing than re-using.

There are many ways that the real-value-from-lessons process can be made more efficient and effective in a number of ways, many of them small tweaks. For instance, by...

  • making a standard part of lesson capture be a request for some sort of indicator of value and cost of taking action on the lesson.
  • finding ways to encourage stating lessons in ways that are more likely to be understood and actionable (for example, replace "should" statements with hypotheses about what works).
  • project leaders making learning a part of executing, and actively encouraging people to connect the dots – "Hey, if we're smart, we'll be learning about X and Y as we work the plan in this next phase of the project, which will save us time and aggravation later."

A leader or Project Management Office (PMO) can kick-start things by holding a short meeting to revisit lessons already accumulated from past projects and do triage on them, filtering for where there is real value to be tapped.

Deliberate value creation does require an investment of time– the key is to invest that time where it will pay real dividends.

Have the driver for learning be the team maximizing its own impact and agility.

Ask yourself; When is a ‘Lesson Learned’ actually learned?

For a Lesson to be actually learned, it must be proven in the world of action first by producing improved results—before becoming the sort of knowledge likely to be sought out by others or re-used. A good idea, an issue to be improved, or even a one-time success is not YET a learnable lesson–but that is much of what so often passes under the header of Lessons Learned.

So skip making recommendations for a while, and focus locally. Too many Lessons Learned efforts engage people in producing what are essentially recommendations for (often unspecified) others. Ironically, what actually drives successful re-use of knowledge generated by others is units of people that have good reason to value learning through experience. And that comes about when people and teams use deliberate learning from experiences as part of how they succeed in their own work. Only with that in place does it make sense for an organization to put real effort into capturing “lessons” for others. Face it, having advice from others imposed upon you on how to do your job or manage your project is just not very popular! Yet, seeking insights from others that you respect can be a very smart way to go.ARC

The fastest path to a learning organization coming into being is when leaders visibly and daily embody learning. Check out Signet’s study of “the world’s premiere learning organization” published in HBR: Core to its sustained success was leader-led, disciplined cycles of learning that produced hi-value strategic benefits.

The three elements of the Action Review Cycle (ARC) are a clearly communicated leader's Intent, Before Action Reviews (BAR), After Action Reviews (AAR). The elements interact in a way that also creates a virtuous cycle of aligned team effort. BARs bring lessons forward in the current situation, AARs check the quality of results against the intent and identify specific success factors... and that in turn informs planning for the next phase and/or the next project.

As you transform your Lessons Learned approach, don't reinvent the wheel!

We can provide Professional Development Workshops as one means to try this approach on, such as:

When Lessons Learned Aren’t –  What Project Managers Can Do to Change That
(Detailed workshop description)

Signet’s senior consultants are skilled in helping leaders and teams sort out where (and whether) learning is a wise investment of time, and how to conduct it efficiently. We provide easily customized elements to be used as needed: Presentations of research findings and the Action Review Cycle methodology, Organizational Agility survey, Q&A Meetings for key stakeholders, skill-building tailored to the levels of employees involved, followthrough coaching by phone, etc. Please feel free to contact us to discuss your particular situation and needs.


ARC & AARs     Line of sight

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