Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 7;   February 17, 2010: The Politics of Lessons Learned

The Politics of Lessons Learned

by

Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, III

USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, III, tells war corres­pon­dents about the sinking of his ship. Photographed on Guam in August 1945, following the rescue of her survivors. On July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis delivered to a base on Tinian, parts of the bomb known as Little Boy, which would be used against Hiroshima. She then left for Guam, and after departing Guam, she was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Over 300 of her crew of 1196 died in the attack, and of the 880 who went into the water, all but 317 were lost to sharks. In November, in a Naval Court Martial, Capt. McVay was convicted of Negligence in "Suffering a Vessel of the Navy to be Hazarded." His sentence was remitted and he was returned to active duty, retiring in 1949. Still, disgraced, he committed suicide in 1968. In October of 2000, Congress passed and the President signed legislation declaring that Captain McVay's military record should reflect exoneration for the loss of his command and the lives of the men who died in that disaster.

Courts martial share much in common with retrospectives. One common feature is the goal of uncovering of truth. In its handling of Capt. McVay's court martial the U.S. Navy exhibited several of the effects described here, including the consequences of compromised safety of witnesses, a lack of emphasis on what was done correctly, and very limited explorations of the contributions to the disaster by those with organizational power.

For more about the loss of the Indianapolis, visit Indianapolis.org. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, courtesy Wikimedia.

A list of "lessons learned" is usually among the deliverables of retrospectives and after-action reviews. Since listing lessons is different from learning them, there's room to question the import of the lessons learned exercise. The lists themselves are also worth examining. Here are some suggestions for anyone hoping to gather truly valuable lessons learned.

Gathering lessons learned is necessary but not sufficient
Many organizations do gather lessons learned, and that's useful. The next step, also necessary, is using the data collected to determine how to incorporate those lessons into organizational processes and culture. To gain from the exercise we must spend real money and allocate real effort to incorporating what we learn into future projects and ongoing processes.
Reviewing lessons learned is essential to planning
Lessons learned are valuable only when our successors learn from them. When we add lessons to the knowledge base, how do future planners learn about these new lessons? Reviewing past lessons learned during the planning process is one good way to propagate the benefits.
Safety is essential
Candid self-assessment is more likely when the assessors feel safe. If self-assessors feel that acknowledgement of responsibility for errors leads to retribution, they will (justifiably) withhold truth. Worse, they might suggest that responsibility lies elsewhere when it doesn't, or they might emphasize contributions from elsewhere to a far greater extent than they merit. A sense of safety in retrospectives is essential for eliciting Truth.
The term "Lessons Learned" is misleading
Many "lessons learned" aren't actually lessons we've learned. Often they're lessons we still need to learn. When we apply the label "lesson learned" to something we haven't yet learned, we enhance the risk that we'll move on without actually learning it. "Lessons To Be Learned" is usually a more accurate term.
Beware lessons that others should learn
When teams Candid self-assessment is
more likely when the
assessors feel safe
produce lessons learned, they sometimes include prescriptions for educating others, especially when pointing out these deficits relieves the team of responsibility for some errors. For a Lessons Learned exercise, lessons for others to learn are out of scope. Within scope are lessons about coping with others' needs for learning. But even discussing the coping can be difficult if safety is compromised, and if the others in need of learning are powerful enough.
We also learn from what went right
Lists of lessons learned that include insights based on things that went well, in addition to those insights based on more troubled parts of the effort, probably present a more complete view. Understanding the reasons for success is at least as valuable as understanding the reasons for failure.

It's curious how so many organizations gather lessons learned about project efforts, but fail to gather lessons learned about the lessons learned effort. They probably don't know whether or not the lessons learned effort is worthwhile. I wonder what they would learn if they took a look at it…and I wonder why they aren't looking at it now. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power of Situational Momentum  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenPMLioTSKiTBkVdpPner@ChacXuSbQPhgmLqWAvUloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
The Bill of RightsImpasses in Group Decision-Making: II
When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic tactics.
Dry Falls, in Grand County, Washington StateImpasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James ComeyUnanswerable Questions
Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable questions and how can we respond?

See also Workplace Politics and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceComing May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
The end of the line for a railroad trackAnd on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenKyQFupFAYhqqxhFKner@ChackEmpTbAYggUurubToCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.