What’s the connection between Madonna, King Solomon and Louis Vuitton?

Tricky one eh?

In “Live to tell”, Madonna famously stated:

“A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well…”

King Solomon waxed lyrical about lessons from laziness in the book of Proverbs (24:30-34)

“I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”

Louis Vuitton clearly have a position on this too:

Luis Vitton

It’s not just that they all connect with the concept of “lessons learned”.  It’s that in each case the association is negative.  In fact, nearly all references to lessons learned outside of KM, Organisational Learning or Project Management have negative connotations.

When my wife will knowingly shakes her head at me and tuts “…lessons learned darling, lessons learned…”, I know I’m well and truly busted.

What went wrong with the concept of lessons?  In school, lessons are positive, educational and beneficial.  The minute we step out of the school gates they become negative, undesirable and punitive.

  • The phrase “I’ve learned my lesson” usually follows sorrow and suffering.
  • The phrase “I’m going to teach you a lesson” is usually followed by sorrow and suffering.

So with these precious market insights in mind, what name shall we give to our Organisational Learning processes to make them relevant, constructive and appealing? Imagine the following phone call…

me: Hello is that the KM Sales & Marketing department? Any ideas on branding this learning cycle stuff?

them: We’ve had this brilliant idea. Let’s call it “Lessons Learned”!

me: Well, I guess it’s better than “Post Mortem” that the Project guys are already using.

Sigh.  Sometimes we don’t exactly make it easy for ourselves.

Not to say that we want to discourage learning from negative experiences.  Of course we don’t – it’s a precious, precious investment.  But if that’s all we do, then learning itself becomes a negative experience by association.

1.  Let’s ensure that we apply the same learning approaches when things go well, as when they go badly.  This can difficult to embed without some discipline and leadership commitment, because when a project goes well, the team assume that the success was all down to their own natural professionalism and struggle to articulate recommendations for others.  (When a project goes badly, then the team will be quick to blame external factors – See Argyris, Teaching Smart People how to Learn for details.)

2.  Let’s be prepared to dispense with the “lessons” word altogether if it carries so much baggage.

My favourite alternative is “Learning from Experience”.
Experience is much more neutral than “lessons”.  It can be positive experience, negative experience, our experience or someone else’s experience (more on that in part 3.)

If you get the chance to position and brand your efforts, you might consider about losing lessons and exhorting experience.

As Albert Einstein provocatively put it.

Experience is learning. Everything else is just information.