Learning From Experience

I have always thought it sad how bad we are at Lessons Learned. I have a course on this topic, developed with ESI, for a major bank and available on enquiry. As countless attendees have told me “we should call them lessons observed as we know we do not learn them”.

The Reason

We (you and I generally) are bad at corporate Learning from Experience (LfE) for a number of reasons. First it is a four part process (see below) of which we typically only do part one of,

Second the parts of the process each suit involvement of different personalities.

Third a major insight for successful LfE is to apply it through-out the project not at the end.

Fourth most LfE ‘Observation and Reflection’ is focused on the negatives (despite the fact that anyone asked says parrot-fashion that we should always “look for good and bad” – a skilled facilitator can help here),

Fifth there is rarely an incentive for the participants to take part and expose their mistakes and

Sixth the journey from part four ‘Propose’ to implementation and skill is non-trivial. It needs management support in exactly the way Deeming’s famous Red Beads experiment demonstrated.

The Four Part Process

Learning from Experience is easier when you have the experience to know how! LfE comprises a repeating cycle of four parts:

Part 1: Experience something from which to learn from
(Concrete Experience)

Part 2: Observe and reflect on the experience
(Reflective Observation)

Part 3: Link cause and effect, suggest relationships
(Abstract Conceptualisation)

Part 4: Propose and try remedial actions/ formalisation successful actions
(Active Experimentation)

The interested reader might apply their favourite search engine to the works of David Kolb.

The Passage to Skill

During the parts of the process above we pass through two deconstructive states that have to be reversed in part four.

Part 1/ 2/ 3 analyse and synthesise what we experienced to make explicit the actions that lead to the outcome we wish to avoid or duplicate in future.

That is we turn tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge through analysis. In the fourth step we must return the knowledge to tactic knowledge if we are to use it.

Tacit & Explicit

My favourite example of explicit and tacit knowledge is the equation “r~v2/a” which explains explicitly how to compensate for an imbalance when riding a bicycle so as not to fall off. Its use as tacit knowledge is how one actually rides the bicycle. Knowing the equation is of zero use to riding the bike. Tacit knowledge is what we can apply yet almost universally organisation’s LfE focuses on creating explicit knowledge.

The stages in LfE cycle around and around and carry us through the following:

Start-Point: Unconscious incompetence
“I didn’t know how ignorant I was”

Step 2: Conscious incompetence
“Wowww There is a lot more to this than I was aware of”

Step 3: Conscious competence
“I have to think about it but I can do this” and finally

Step 4: Unconscious competence
“I can ride this bicycle but don’t ask me to explain how!”

To LFE (Learn From Experience) requires parts 1-4 in the context of steps 1-4. The steps occurs most successfully when there is an experienced mentor supporting a willing project team (or team member), but that isn’t always available when learning from experience. In the learning from our own recent experience case those traits that are reflective theorising and those that are active doing are often present in different people. For a business to LfE requires allowing time for collaborations between them. The Do-ers are often impatient for results while the theorists want to write-it-down (where it will never be read by the do-ers).

Conformance or Performance?

Lastly (perhaps) consider what will I do if there is a corporate standards manual that I can follow and collect my pay-check whether results are achieved or not versus attempting innovations that if they fail will be criticised for being non-conformant? Many of us select the “quiet-life” approach and conform whether it benefits the shareholder or not.

When To Apply It

I have a consulting client who talks of the monthly look-back for the 12 week look-ahead. Once a month those driving the project look in its rear-view mirrors and ask what in the last 4 weeks should we re-apply or should we avoid in the next 12 weeks. Where cause and effect cannot be easily linked the LfE takes effort to work through the remaining steps. IE their LfE is built into the monthly project cycle not bolted onto the end of the project when project staff are moving on.

Simon Harris PMP, CGEIT, MOR, PRINCE2®

© Logical Model Ltd 2010

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