Adaptive Practice Is Better Than “Lessons Learned”
We’ve probably all been there. After months of stress, and weeks of late nights a project team celebrates as they manage to get a product ‘over the line’ just in the nick of time. You know the type of project, one that keeps very nearly going off-the-rails, and is skillfully kept on target by some skilled and dedicated change practitioners. Once the euphoria and celebrations of delivering have dispersed, a ‘lessons learned’ session is convened. After all, that’s the sensible thing to do, right?
We’ve probably all been to these meetings, and they can certainly be cathartic. Everyone takes the opportunity to get all of their grievances off their chest, which are duly written on sticky notes, sorted and captured as ‘lessons that have been learned’. Somebody then types these up into a document, distributes them, and stores them in a central repository. Well, I say ‘central repository’, what I really mean is ‘a black hole where information is thrown and will never see the light of day again’.
OK, I’m being slightly dramatic and facetious here, but how often are ‘lessons learned’ documents actually referred to? If a similar project is initiated again, do people actually go back and look and see what went wrong (and right) last time? Or do the documents just sit on the shelf collecting electronic dust. As somebody much more intelligent than me once said “Heck, we should call these lessons documented not lessons learned!”.
Just Little Bits Of History Repeating
Surely individuals and teams that don’t take the opportunity to learn are destined to make the same mistakes again? And if we’re honest, don’t many organizations seem to make the same mistakes repeatedly?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “ah, but we can have agile retrospectives (“retros”)! We’ll meet far more regularly and adapt as we go”. And I would absolutely agree with you, when retros are held frequently and when adaptive action is taken, things can work really well. However, some retros become ‘lip service’. If you have the same item raised in retro after retro after retro without any adaptation or action taken (assuming it’s something within the team’s control) then is it really working? Or has it become a ceremony repeated out of habit that has lost its original intent.
I am absolutely not arguing against retrospectives, or post-implementation reviews. However, sometimes it becomes corporate theater where people go through the motions, everyone knowing that nothing will change. If that’s the case, why not save a few hours a year in meetings and spend a few more hours on the beach?
If we think about the essence of lessons learned and retrospectives, they are focusing on building adaptive practice. If we accept that ‘best practice’ in one context might not work at all in another, then it makes sense that we’ll need to constantly see what works, do more of the stuff that works well, and change the stuff that doesn’t. Ideally, this will involve small chunks of valuable work with regular feedback being built in. There also needs to be a supportive culture where improvement—and by implication failure—can be openly discussed. Not all experiments will work: if a scientist reported 100% success rate on every experiment they’ve ever carried out (i.e. they claim every hypothesis they’ve ever formulated is correct) then we’d be suspicious. Shouldn’t the same skepticism of ‘repeated success’ be true in a business context, where there’s much less rigor than in a scientific context?
Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve found it very useful to record real time feedback or real time ideas for improvement. Or, as close to ‘real time’ as is possible. Let’s imagine a team meets every week or two to discuss improvement ideas. If you wait until those specific points to think about what to improve, the ideas will probably focus on the things that have been most painful, and the things that were most recent (after all, there are many cognitive biases that affect us as humans, including the recency bias). With that in mind, it’s far more useful to jot things down as they occur. I often jot things down in the margin of my notepad, or when I’m at my desk I use colored sticky notes.
Reflective journaling is another idea that I’ve tried in the past and really must get back into the habit of. Much as a researcher might keep a research diary, as practitioners who are speaking with many stakeholders and gaining information from many sources, writing a few lines of reflection each day (along with innovation and improvement ideas) is useful. After all, ideas have a tendency to evaporate if they are not written down and actioned.
Most of all though, it’s important to ask not just “what” is necessary, but “what next”, “who” and “when”. If there isn’t a concrete action associated with a “lesson” then it’s really just a pipe dream. As practitioners of change we are perfectly positioned to help our teams and organizations embrace these changes.