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The Future of the Future: Breaking the lessons-learned barrier

A key ingredient in fast learning is capturing and sharing lessons-learned. That means continually assessing what’s working, what’s not working and finding ways to improve.

When we discuss this notion with business and government leaders, most of them lament that their organizations waste too much time, money and effort repeating mistakes. Yet, when we ask them what they are doing about it, they shrug their shoulders and look frustrated. With further probing, we consistently find three barriers to capturing and sharing lessons-learned:

  • making the lessons-learned process overly complicated;
  • imposing a lengthy validation process; and
  • persisting in a culture that punishes, rather than learns from, mistakes.

You can take some simple steps to begin breaking down those barriers and to improve your ability to keep pace with the changes in your competitive environment.


Over-complication is a common trap, similar to the "scope-creep" problem in product development. People are torn between succinctness and completeness. The more succinct you are, the more detail you have to leave out. Add more detail, and the lesson you are sharing becomes too long for a world with a sound bite mentality.

Over-complication also results from applying old database mindsets to capturing and sharing knowledge. Too often, a lessons-learned system becomes a nightmare of pre-formatted fields, layers of pick-lists, and annoying messages like: "You cannot continue until you answer all questions marked with an asterisk (*)."

The solution is to think of lessons-learned as bite-sized nuggets. A lesson-learned should take the form of a conversation around the water cooler. It goes something like this: "Did you hear what happened over the weekend? We got a panic call from one of our field offices. They needed item X immediately, but the shortest lead time was three weeks. Then somebody said, ‘Let’s try Y instead,’ and guess what, it worked."

Unfortunately, knowledge like that often gets lost in the walls around the employee lounge, never making it to the rest of the organization. Aside from planting hidden microphones, which would raise too many other issues, consider setting up a simple online system for capturing and sharing those nuggets of wisdom, through effective storytelling. We have successfully used an approach first introduced by behavior-based interviewing pioneer Paul Green, which is based on the acronym SHARE: Situation, Hindrance, Action, Result, Evaluation.

Each is a free text field. Situation describes the context: who was involved, what happened, when and where did it happen, and why and how did it come about. Hindrance describes the obstacles encountered. Action describes the steps that were or were not taken, followed by the result. Finally, if a similar situation were to occur in the future, offer the best preventative or corrective measures, based on what you now know (evaluation).

No elaborate taxonomies, ontologies or complex queries. Just a dynamic collection of valuable nuggets. If you find your narrative is getting too long, try breaking up your knowledge "ingot" into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Search engines are getting much better at working with free text. Take full advantage of that, and move away from rigid, mind-numbing data structures. Think campfire ghost stories instead.

By the way, we’re not suggesting that you do away with well-developed case studies and supporting data. Rather, use the nugget as a front end, in a way that gives the supporting data and case studies greater context, meaning and value.


A major contributor to making things too complicated is management’s insistence on a lengthy validation process. That discourages sustained, meaningful contribution, because people quickly become frustrated with the formal system and return to the simpler water-cooler method of knowledge sharing.

The solution is to simplify and streamline the validation process, commensurate with risk. Weigh the risks of taking too long to disseminate critical knowledge against the consequences of applying knowledge that has not been properly vetted. Most knowledge nuggets are informal, innovative ideas that save time and money. Of course, you need to guard against dangerous shortcuts that circumvent necessary checks and balances. One of the benefits of an online system is that by moving the stories out of the shadows and into the open, potential hazards can be brought to everyone’s attention more quickly.

Excessive paranoia
Capturing lessons-learned may require admitting that you made a mistake. You’re probably thinking: "Yeah, right. Does this mean we’re going to add a list of ‘Greatest Misses’ to my performance review? While we’re at it, why not just go ahead and cc every attorney on the planet? That way they can file one massive lawsuit against me, and I won’t have to worry about defending myself against a whole bunch of little ones."

The solution is to move from a culture of punishing mistakes to one of not repeating mistakes. Sadly, when a disaster occurs, the ensuing investigation is usually more about hanging somebody out to dry than it is about finding out what went wrong, and how to prevent it from happening again. A climate like this only causes everyone to run and hide.

Instead, create a "safe proving ground" environment that encourages identifying and correcting errors when they are small—long before they can grow into a larger and possibly catastrophic failure. This approach not only prevents repeated errors, but also promotes habitual learning and innovation, putting you on an upward trajectory of sustained performance

Competing in a flat world means quickly learning from your mistakes and building upon your successes. A simplified lessons-learned system is an important step toward becoming an Enterprise of the Future.

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