Lessons Learned: Seldom Remembered: Soon Forgotten
Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
Something on the Project goes wrong and is fixed – “Let’s put this down for lessons learned” goes the management mantra. But was this experience just a failing that should not have happened in the first place and relearning a previously taught, but now forgotten, ‘lesson’?
If we don’t learn then the same mistakes will be made and possible opportunities will be missed and, as Edmund Burke the 18th Century Irish Statesman said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it“. But why do we forget our lessons? Abe Lincoln said “Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten” reflecting that loss in some form such as money, property, or reputation, not necessarily blood, is needed to ensure that memory is ingrained and can be recalled.
Lessons that are remembered after the fact tend to add insult to injury; when you’re up to your neck in alligators you then remember that distant lesson about draining the swamp!
“Experience is the teacher of all things” wrote Julius Caesar to which somebody later added, “and the worst experiences teach the best lessons“.
Experiencing a situation first hand is useful in knowing what to do if it happens again. However, somebody with 20 years’ experience may only have one year repeated 20 times if they have always done things the same way. Experience is not just measured in years or application of ‘last job syndrome’ but the application of knowledge gained.
Direct experience may not provide the knowledge to avoid or plan for a situation but merely the ability to deal with it; this is reaction as opposed to pro-action. It’s also not just about adverse situations and dealing with risk but also recognising and capitalising on beneficial scenarios to create opportunities.
Learning from the Experienced
It is said, disparagingly some say, that those who can, do, while those who cannot, teach. Passing on experience requires that skilful style of communication called ‘teaching’, and its reciprocal part, ‘learning’.
Experienced people recollect their experiences and what they did to avert a crisis or deal with a ‘situation’. They may share what they would do if it happened again. Such anecdotes may be interesting, fascinating or even entertaining but has a lesson been taught?
An experienced person may not be a teacher and the ‘students’ may not understand how experience may be applied. Understanding the experience, identifying the underlying causes and implementing measures to address such an eventuality are the lessons that must be taken from experience.
If a lesson is to be learnt it needs to be taught, remembered and applied. Lessons in project management also need to be passed on from project to project and improved upon as required or even, if they are wrong, ‘unlearned’.
The Confucianism “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand” is one of many learning models but it reflects the need for both remembering and understanding lessons.
Teaching can be cheap, quick, or good. Cheap often means nasty and lessons taught quickly are typically just as soon forgotten. Lessons need to be reviewed, revised and galvanised as experience is gained and, ideally, they become part of corporate culture and a collective understanding. A lesson that has been purportedly learned but is hidden away in a risk register gathering dust only to be resurrected after the fact is a travesty and, unfortunately, another expensive lesson learned.
Lessons learned are essential to gaining real knowledge rather just becoming more experienced doing the same thing. When a situation repeats itself, a lesson learned can prevent the same mistake from being made twice, avoid a foreseeable blunder, and preclude the need for remedial classes and that awful feeling of déjà vu.
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.
Provision of incisive, focused and effective technical and managerial solutions for all project phases; identifying and dealing with troubled projects, and leading project recovery and change through hands-on interaction.
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