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Have you ever been in a meeting titled “Lessons Learned”? It’s a corporate ritual of learning form experience, a specific time when people, at the end of a long project, finally learn something from it. I can’t stand lessons learned meetings, because I disagree with the premises they rest on:

  1. We can understand reality as simple processes of cause and effects (rather than complexity)
  2. Doing is separated form learning (rather than integrated with it)
  3. We fix reality by brainstorming sessions (rather than by taking a stand and defining it)

Those meetings abide to a simplified version of reality. What I argue is that our love for decisive and quick action sterilizes the potential of “lessons learned” into a list of do’s and don’ts that fails to provide us with a deeper sense of the reality we are dealing with. “‘A’ didn’t work, then let’s do ‘B’ instead” mindset fails to understand that maybe ‘A’ was perfectly fine. With other factors (like ‘C’) present, ‘B’ will fail as well.

The “lesson learned syndrome” is a scary tool that might justify actions and fit the mindset of activism that advocates for change every time something didn’t go as planned. It never, however doubts the mind that’s making the calculation.

What if things have to go badly before they get better? What if the pain we feel is part for the process rather than evidence of something that didn’t work? Lessons learned lovers don’t go there, after all “due diligence” can’t be wrong, nor can avoiding asking those deeper questions. And if you do – you will hear people saying things like, “This is well beyond my paygrade!”. Truth is, dealing with symptoms and never with the root causes ensures job security.

I believe that the “Lessons learned” idea in itself vilifies the whole idea of learning by reducing it to ‘learning of the mouse pressing one lever instead of another’. If the cheese didn’t come, then the lever was wrong. I can imagine my biased-for-action readers reacting to these words with awe, after all isn’t action and experience the way we learn best? Yes, only if we take the time to design meaningful action, one that is ultimately meant to give us a better picture of reality.

Defining new actions to learn from it is about taking the time to understand together what happened in the first place. Not a knee-jerk reaction to lower the tension of inaction (a tendency I notice in groups worldwide from Washington DC to Tokyo, Japan.)

Learning, real, deep learning is not just about action. It’s about reflection, about understanding the big-picture, it’s about doubting (not certainty) and then it’s about action, to make sure the next action is the real one.

It’s this militant activism that strive to fix reality to make it better – but never to define it – that generates the dusty actions plans sitting on your shelf and that never get implemented.

This kind of “lessons learned” are not the answer, they are the problem. It’s our inability to sit with “not knowing” what to do and the rush to the “low hanging fruit” to lower our risk of failure that ultimately rob us of the accountability of taking a stand and finally define reality.

What will ‘taking a stand to define reality’ bring to your team?

Adriano understands how to increase your returns on leadership. He works with professionals in world-class organizations that include Philip Morris, Microsoft, the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the US Marine Corps, the State Department and NASA.  A skilled experiential educator with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc., a firm committed to help clients redefine change, collaboration and power in their organizations. He co-authored "Teachable Moments of Leadership"  with Jill Hufnagel in 2016, on a learning methodology that gets results by going from PowerPoint to …powerful!

Adriano Pianesi | adriano@pianesi.com