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Volume 16, Issue 10;   March 9, 2016: How to Find Lessons to Learn

How to Find Lessons to Learn

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When we conduct Lessons Learned sessions, how can we ensure that we find all the important lessons to be learned? Here's one method.
Conferees attending the NATO Lessons Learned Conferencde 2015

Conferees attending the NATO Lessons Learned Conference 2015. NATO's Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre performs joint analysis of operations, training, exercises and experiments. It supports the exchange of Lessons Learned and facilitates the development of lessons learned capabilities. Does your company have a means of propagating lessons learned through the enterprise? Photo courtesy Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre.

Lessons learned sessions are now part of the standard way of doing things, even though we know them by any number of names: Lessons Learned, After Action Review, Navy Lessons Learned, Post Mortem, Post Partum, Retrospective, Team Reflection, Project Review, and more. By whatever name, the goal is to determine what would have improved performance in the effort underway or just completed, and what might help in future efforts.

A systematic method for uncovering potential nuggets is valuable, because it reduces the chance of overlooking something important. General Morphological Analysis (GMA), invented by Fritz Zwicky, can help [1]. That's a fancy name for slicing the problem space into cells and examining those cells one by one.

Slicing the problem space along two dimensions is the easiest to imagine. For Lessons Learned, I like to use the dimensions Innovation by Audience.

Innovation
Along the Innovation axis, use five categories. "Keep" includes what worked well, and what we want to keep doing. "Start" includes things we want to start doing. "Stop" includes the things that didn't work, and which we want to stop doing. "Alter" includes adjustments that we believe would be helpful for future efforts. "Try" includes ideas for experiments for the future.
Audience
The Audience axis is a list of roles, commonly called stakeholders. As we investigate each role, we imagine a conversation with people in those roles. We don't necessarily conduct actual conversations — many of these people are unavailable, and a few of them might not want to talk to us. The imaginary conversations are just tools we use to generate ideas. Audience roles can include the Project Management Office, the Team, Functional Managers, Senior Managers, Customers, Purchasing, Marketing, and so on. For this discussion, let's go with these seven roles.

In this way, we create a 5x7 matrix with one cell for each Innovation by Role combination. For each cell, we consider what we might ask or tell someone in that role about some particular Innovation.

For example, A systematic method for uncovering
potential nuggets is valuable,
because it reduces the chance of
overlooking something important
we might consider telling a Functional Manager to stop substituting one team member for another, and then explain why. We wouldn't necessarily say this to a Functional Manager, but imagining saying it gives us a way to uncover an issue that we might then examine to determine what we can do to improve performance. This example leads to a suggestion that we plan more thoroughly for handling the risk of team member substitution.

By repeating this investigation for all 5x7=35 cells of the problem space, we might discover lessons to be learned that we might otherwise overlook.

Overlooking a lesson is one thing; being reluctant to talk about it is another. People can be reluctant to say aloud what they can easily imagine saying to senior management. To provide some safety, consider collecting suggestions for all cells anonymously.

GMA and safety, together, can provide a useful framework for your next Lessons Learned session. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Costanza Matrix  Next Issue

[1]
Ritchey, Tom. "General Morphological Analysis: A general method for non-quantified modeling," Download here

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