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Thoughts & Ideas

Check back here to see our latest thought leadership, exciting developments, and more!

Thoughts & Ideas

Check back here to see our latest thought leadership, exciting developments, and more!

Why Lessons Learned are Never Learned


You hear it in boardrooms, offices, and from people being interviewed on news programmes all the time and across the world: “we must learn the lessons from this!


Usually these words are preceded by something going spectacularly wrong, a project failing or being cancelled, or some other similar business disaster.


Unfortunately, despite these sorts of statements, on far too many occasions very little actually happens to really properly learn the lessons from said disasters. It’s intriguing as to why very little happens, because almost without exception, everyone agrees that delivering such a disaster, coupled with the negative impact of the outcomes (which then have to be dealt with), is something extremely painful that they’d never want to repeat.


Yet it happens . . . over and over again!


The same mistakes, the same poor outcomes, the same overspend (add in your own experiences to this list!) across a host of projects, and often in the same organisation too.

And these don’t even have to originate from a disaster. It could be that a project has gone reasonably well, and the organisation just wants to capture the things that weren’t so good with a view to improving in the future.


I’ll propose a number of reasons as to why ‘lessons learned’ activities never quite seem to be effective:


  • Fear of admitting a mistake and a subsequent ‘punishment’

  • The view that everything that went wrong is in everyone else’s area and can’t possibly be in one’s own

  • Negative career impact

  • Internal and external politics

  • Not being viewed as important or likely to generate value for the next piece of work that has now become the focus


Of course, all of the above speak highly to the culture that’s present within the team or organisation, and you really only find out what that’s like when things aren’t going well. For example:


  • Does the team pull together and support one another?

  • Is it possible to be completely open and honest with one another about how to improve and develop?

  • Does the leadership enable and encourage people to succeed by accepting and learning from their mistakes?


Or does the finger-pointing blame-game start?!


There is, of course, another possible reason why lessons learned are rarely learned: we don’t actually know how to do it.


On far too many occasions, in the interests of learning lessons, a session is held with a whole host of attendees from across a team or project, where someone is volunteered to stand in front of a flipchart with a marker pen, whilst a wide and varied selection of problems are fired at them from the audience. Not too many corrective actions are included in the barrage of comments, but we sure do get a view of the problems!


"Not too many corrective actions are included in the barrage of comments, but we sure do get a view of the problems!"

Everyone leaves delighted that they’ve got a whole load of frustrations off their chests, comfortable in the knowledge that they now know what not to do next time, albeit in a completely isolated and non-joined up way!


The person in front of the flipchart holding the marker pen now has the dubious pleasure of writing a report on the session that will serve as the lessons learned document. A document that, once published, is rarely read, even more rarely acted upon, and filed away in email archives, SharePoint, or some other similar IT black hole!


But what can we do instead?


What if we combined the ‘how’ with the culture that’s needed to really do lessons learned well, and embed it in our organisation’s ways of working such that it can’t be ignored?


Here are some suggestions for how to effectively capture and act on lessons learned . . . or as they should correctly be called ‘lessons to be learned’, because it can’t be said that they’re ‘learned’ until something has actually changed to prevent recurrence of the problem.


1. Add a deliverable to each stage gate or at regular time intervals requiring that lessons to be learned sessions are undertaken. Make it a requirement to build time to undertake these sessions into the overarching plan . . . and don’t cut it when time gets tight!


2. Have a common cross-department or cross-organisation process for capturing lessons to be learned. This should include a variety of means to source content, including cross-team sessions, individual team sessions, and one-to-one discussions. Remember, some people may feel uncomfortable highlighting their own or others’ areas for improvement when in a group.


3. Use a 3C or ‘Concern, Cause, Countermeasure’ technique to capture what people are saying, thereby helping to structure the responses, attaching relevant data where appropriate. Use a single line for each particular issue raised, containing:


  • The Concern: what looks to be the problem or the undesirable outcome?

  • The Cause: what caused the problem to happen? (A bit of root cause analysis helps here; see also the ‘5 Why’ technique).

  • The Countermeasures: how do we resolve it such that the problem can never occur again?


4. What you then have is a work list that you can build upon with further facts and data, create real actionable plans to change working practices, review training and the like, and add due dates and ownership for resolution.


5. Ensure this work list sits as a single list outside of any particular project at a level appropriate to all teams undertaking similar work, such that common issues across projects and teams can be identified and tackled just once.


6. Test the resolution to ensure it’s worked and hasn’t resulted in any unintended consequences.


7. And finally, one for the leaders: support this sort of approach, insist on it being done thoroughly, and recognise people for doing the difficult thing – admitting that maybe they didn’t quite do everything right, and accepting that everyone can always improve.


"By taking such an approach, it’s possible to tackle both the ‘how’ and the culture"

By taking such an approach, it’s possible to tackle both the ‘how’ and the culture that’s necessary to be effective in truly learning lessons from the past. As a new process becomes embedded and supported at all levels in the organisation, as changes are made to act upon issues, and as people start feeling increasingly comfortable to openly discuss ways they can improve their own work, the rate of improvement increases dramatically, as does the positivity in the culture and peoples’ sense of satisfaction in their work.



Peyto Consulting is an independent consultancy specialising in Business Transformation & Change, Programme & Project Management, and Continuous Improvement. We use recognised methods tailored to your specific needs to deliver great outcomes, taking you from where you are now to where you want to be.


Photo by Ben White


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