Keep waiting for Lessons Learned and you’ll experience more failure 

I keep reading articles that remind us of the importance of learning from failure and how learning from failure is a good thing. I agree. However, all too often, they are usually well wide of the mark.

How to really learn from failureFor example, take a look at “increase your return on failure” (Birkinshaw & Haas), Harvard Business Review, May 2016 (as you read, bear in mind that this issue is entitled, “how to really learn from failure”). The authors put forward three key tenets for learning from failure.  First, learn from failure. Second, share the lessons. Third, review patterns of failure. But what really gets my goat is that learning is still treated in the same way it was twenty years ago. Quite frankly, this is just not good enough. For example, Birkinshaw & Haas recommend:

“bringing senior leaders (across a unit or the whole organisation) together on a regular basis to talk about their respective failures. These reviews work best when they are fast [the authors referring to length of meeting and not learning quickly from the learning event itself] and to the point, take place frequently, through good times and bad, and are forward looking, with an emphasis on learning…we have even seem some organisations create formal structures for sharing lessons from failures” (p. 92)

First, I am eternally frustrated by articles that promote learning as something that happens at the upper levels of the organisation. Second, why do people keep promoting the sharing of learning, extended learning across an organisation, as something that can wait to happen (e.g. meetings that happen sometime after a project is completed). Thirdly, in what reality do organisations have the opportunity to bring senior leaders together often enough to enable these lessons to be learned rapidly?

Seriously, people have been talking about Organisational Learning, Learning Organisations and Lessons Learned in this way for over thirty years! I keep searching, waiting, for the focus on learning: meeting structures that align with how adults learn; cognitive science insights into effective learning approaches; variation in learning approach according to the task domain (simple, complicated, complex – increased levels of ambiguity between variables in the task domain); the speed of learning; the risk of unintended consequences through incomplete or insecure learning etc. Instead, we are continuously treated to rhetoric that fails to grasp the drivers that create the need for Learning Organisations in the first place.

Instead, we are treated to the same messages rolled out by new authors and consultants year in and year out. For example, this nugget: “informal approaches work too, however. The key is to capture relevant lessons with sayings or stories that catch on beyond the project’s immediate circle and eventually become corporate folklore” (ibid, p. 92).

Such ambiguous approaches to learning are bordering on meaningless and are just not good enough. Fundamentally I find the lack of consideration for the way in which adults learn, in processes designed to learn lessons, startling. Quite simply, it is nothing short of blind ignorance.

This is your challenge: lessons need to be learned quickly or you will only experience more failure. In The cultural triangletoday’s hyper-connected/hyper-interdependent (VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world we have to be interested in accelerating the learning process. This means nudging technology systems and human behaviours to accelerate learning. It also means building leadership models, structure and processes that produce a culture that can sustain learning acceleration over time. Finally, we have to be interested in structures and processes that enhance the security and completeness of learning – to not do so increases the risk of unintended consequences. This is why articles, such as the one from Birkinshaw & Haas, are out dated and, ultimately, not that helpful.

In the mean time, if you are one of those people/organisations that waits to learn, here are four questions for you to ponder while you wait:

  • What is the impact upon time, innovation, safety, innovation or cost while you wait to learn?
  • What are your customers experiencing while you wait to learn?
  • What are your competitors doing while you wait to learn?
  • What advantage are you handing to technology while you wait to learn?

The one thing I can guarantee, the longer you wait, the more failure you will experience. The only acceptable solution for today’s organisations are leadership models, structures and processes that produce a culture of rapid learning. Anything else is, quite frankly, reckless.

4 thoughts on “Keep waiting for Lessons Learned and you’ll experience more failure 

  1. David, very interesting critical reflection on ‘lessons learned’ (referring to this very recent publication, with not-so-new messages). Good to read!

    Your article triggers 2 thoughts for me:

    1) why is there still so much focus on *capturing* ‘lessons’ – rather than on the actual learning of such lessons? Capturing lessons learned in either some project management system or even stories does not ensure that lessons are actually learned. (Less capture / more learning might be better?) (less ‘reification’, more action).

    2) Would promoting ‘reflective practice’ (Argyris/Schoen), preferably ‘in action’ (i.e. where and when it actually happens) be a (better?) way to ensure learning of lessons takes place where and when (‘in action’) it happens and by the practitioners involved in the action themselves? [If looking at 30+-year-old concepts, my choice would be this one…]

    1. Hi Barbara, thank for commenting!

      I agree – we are working on rapid learning, where the focus is on the learning experience and then impact/results, related to the dissemination of changes of behaviour related to time, quality, safety, innovation and cost.

      Also, love the work of Argyris & Schon… So glad to see you mention them 🙂

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