Lessons learned and cultural bias

Within most global organizations, the same version of a “Lessons Learned” (LL) methodology is blindly used with all populations, despite the cultural and behavioural factors which inhibits the  effectiveness of the  lessons learned methodology.

Lessons learned methodology is ridden with western biases and thus, the wrong lessons can be learnt in companies with very acute diversity. Here is a case at hand.

A “lessons learned” exercise was carried out following the 3 month delay in the release of  a software service pack ,which resulted in a severe crisis with a key customer as well as the loss of future business for the upcoming 2 quarters.

The lessons learned process was led by Ralph White, from Burlington Vermont. Ralph is SVP Special Projects and has an operations background. Main results-

  • The prescribed  process  in the ”Plan of Record” was not rigorously  adhered to. Short cuts were negotiated informally outside of the Plan of Record, which were undocumented, untested and not integrated between functions, which caused mismatched expectations between teams.
  • The role of  R&D Project Manager  and the role of the Release Manager were not clearly defined, causing conflicting input to confused developers.
  • When hard work over weekends and holidays was needed, management showed “weakness” and capitulated to “populism.”
  • R&D did not follow development methodology with enough rigor.

In other words, the “system” had holes in it and did not work. But many of the folks involved in the project do not believe that “systems” work or should work!. So there are a whole set of cross cultural issues that were untouched by the lessons learned exercise. Here are some of the real lessons:-

  • Naor Lior-Tal  (m,Israel) is the Head of R&D. Naor believes that under severe time constraints, people cover their ass in Plan of Record meetings and the only way to get more  things done is to negotiate for more aggressive commitments informally, outside the plan of record. Naor feels blocked from managing commitments the way he would prefer.
  • HR Manager Anumati Abishta, (f, India) knows that there is always a shut down in late December and early January in US corporate HQ. Every other holiday can be “cancelled” by asking for extra effort. When folks learned about the need t o work on the Chinese New Year due to the shut down in December-Jan, Anumati knew that a meltdown of motivation and a massive walk out was possible, unless she worked behind the scenes to cover up so that people could celebrate Chinese new year, causing a 3 week delay (which she said would be “ok).
  • Helmut, (m, Germany) the master planner believes that not enough data was available to access the extent of the “slip”. More data would have allowed better risk management. (Data fixes systems).
  • Vlad (m, Russia) from Sales believes the delay is no big deal. Proper relationship management could have solved the problem, but corporate is “festering with compliance officers”, and thus, Sales folks do not have tools to appease clients’ anger.

So when Ralph White presents his report to be discussed, I question if the right lessons will be learned.

Now let’s set up a few guidelines to improve lessons learned across very diverse cultures.

1) Let’s take the example of Holland, Germany, Israel and France where criticism can be well valued.

During the process of LL, overly positive statements must be avoided because they will seen as as “ducking out”;  dwelling for too long about what went well is as boy scout-ism from which little can be learnt. The result of lessons learned in these cultures  is a list of things that went wrong, why and what needs to be done differently by whom the next time.

2) In many parts of Asia, public negative statements about things that have happened are avoided to enable save facing.

During the process of LL, communication will be oblique, indirect and low keyed and one will need to understand what was not said. Apology, humility and a promise to try harder next time are the publicly shared lessons learned that can be generated within these cultures. Any other lessons must be taught discretely.

3) In the US, the overdosing on politically correct can obfuscate lessons learned because the lesson need to be cleansed linguistically. So it is very important to be crystal clear and explicit about what is really meant.


Clearly diverse cultures are ill suited to apply the same  lessons learned methodology.  Yet LL methodologies originate in western corporate headquarters and as such are based on one flavour suits all.

An interesting and value creating role for an OD consultant is to interpret the cultural script of a lessons learned exercise . Herein is a vast secret code which is fascinating to decipher.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons learned and cultural bias

  1. Allon, This is a great example. the problem here, as i see it, is that Western, and primarily American consultants and managers take an exclusively US-centric view. The US point of view is like water to the fish. What’s needed is a global-centric view.

  2. At the core of global literacy lies a requirement deeper than diversity appreciation: an awareness that how we interpret and understand our experiences influences how we experience the world which, in turn, influences how we interpret our experiences. (Yeap, here comes Heidegger’s philosophy – untranslatable even in German). Hence, the chap from Vermont had no choice but not seeing that organizational learning could take place differently in different cultures – unless he had a little dab of global literacy so he could get that at the core of organizational learning lie fundamental pre-suppositions that vary from culture to culture. Agility in organizational learning requires humility, a cultural trait absent from the North American culture sustained by and born from myths of omnipotence (eg.Paul Bunyan).

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