OD and Lessons Learned Exercises

When an organization as a whole or a subunit goes thru a lessons learned process after a major failure, Organization Development can bring meaningful value, both in designing the exercise and facilitating it, when appropriate.

Herein I shall describe several of the flaws and frequent faults of lessons learned, with the hope that my accrued experience will be of value to the OD practitioner who wants to dip his or even her toes into this water.

Flaw #1: Hidden Agendas

In lessons learned, the big turd on the table is who will get most of the blame. Organizations produce blame, and this blame needs to be parked somewhere. Generally, blame is parked at the politically weakest place. Lessons learned is not about blaming, but learning. While the stated agenda may be learning  there is always another agenda. Very few people will “just” have learning on their mind. There are hidden agendas.

Steve is VP R&D. He committed to an impossible delivery date and failed to deliver. Steve will blame Recruitment’s ability to hire new engineers in the lessons learned process.


Flaw #2: Blaming Process

Lessons learned often surfaces conclusions like “there was deviation from process” in order to “explain away” a major failure. Much process is made of “cover your ass” material, and should not be evoked in lessons learned unless very appropriate. People often don’t follow process because the process is useless, time consuming or irrelevant. So invoking process in lessons learned can be a lesson in futility.

Flaw #3: Put on clean underwear; don’t flip them and wear again

The people who do lessons learned are often the same people who made the mistakes. Thus, lessons learned will also express their weakness and limitations. Incompetence easily seeps into the lessons learned exercise. Or as my Dad used to say, “you cannot look up your own nostrils”. (Actually he said something much cruder).

Flaw #4: Often the flaw is untreatable

When an organization exists because of risk taking, you win a few and you lose a few. It makes no sense to debrief a loss, since it’s parts of a basically unchangeable so called genetic code.  In such a case, it makes sense to focus on secondary or tactical flaws, such as “why were we SO surprised when we failed”.

Flaw #5: Genetic, built-in frequently occurring flaws

One needs to factor in and try to mitigate genetic flaws in the lessons learned process. Sales and engineering blame one another; so will Finance and HR. Armies will blame government’s unclear goals, and government will claim that armies don’t use enough force. These patterns are trite & must be cleansed as much as possible, focusing on facts and not on stereotypes.

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