Lessons Learned

How the Beatles Share Knowledge!

I’m currently co-facilitating a series of consortium meetings with my friend and colleague Elizabeth Lank  for six leading organisations, all well known and well-respected for their KM capability.

One of the more light-hearted activities in preparation for the next meeting is for each of the participants to select a suitable “track to share knowledge by”, which has generated some fascinating insights, as well as providing us with a background soundtrack for some of the activities we have planned.

One band which cropped up repeatedly was the Beatles, which got me thinking, and digging through my own collection of Beatles singles – and I thought I’d share the outcome here (there and everywhere…)


This is of my favourite exhibits at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, sculpted (if that’s the right word) by Giuseppe Penone. Here’s a summary from the description:

Out of processed planks of timber the ancient technique of carving draws out the shape of a tree, wood removed ring by ring until twelve metres of tree – bottom to top and top to bottom – is exposed within two sawn pieces of wood, initially intended for construction.
Sculpture is engaged in a reconstruction through deconstruction, a turning back of the clock, pulling back to reveal the raw within the contained.

I love this work because it speaks to me of the stories which lie within. It says that with careful skill, the layers of what looks on the surface to be an unremarkable object can be peeled away to reveal years of history, detail and in this case beauty.  In the case of the tree on the left– it revealed truth that the world was actually the other way up!

If you’re anything like me, there will have been times when you have looked through the write-up of a post-project review, or lessons learned summary, and wanted to ask questions of the document in your hand, or on your screen.   And when we try to ask a document a question, it will always be a one-sided conversation!

Asking the right questions is the core activity for anyone facilitating a learning review.

Naturally it’s better to learn whilst doing, rather than try to get a team to remember at the end of a significant project (and not post-rationalise events!) – but all too often you are confronted with a “learning after doing” scenario.  So how do you make the best of that situation? So what types of questions should we consider?  Here are 20+ questions and some techniques which I find helpful.

Questions to establish the facts and re-set the context.

  • Can anyone talk me through the original plan and objectives of the project?
  • Did these change over time?  (When, How, Why?)
  • Who was responsible for this task, and did this responsibility change? (Why, How, Who?)
  • How well did the project achieve its aims?
  • What were the areas of deviation from the plan, and what were the reasons?

Questions to surface the notable high and low spots.

  • Think back over each phase of the project: What did the team do well during this time?
  • What was the most professionally satisfying part of the project for you?
  • What should have gone better?
  • What were the most frustrating parts of the project?
  • Were there any early warning signs which we should have spotted? What should we look out for in future?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the project, what would you change?
  • If you had to give a mark out of 10 for the project outcome/output – what would that be? What would make that a 10?
  • If you had to give a mark out of 10 for the project process – what would that be? What would make that a 10?
  • How many marks of 10 would your customers/contractors give it?
  • Consider the Emotional Rollercoaster as a technique.
  • Michael Greer’s PM Resources article has a number of more specific questions for design and implementation phases.

Questions to dig deeper

  • Why?  The 5-why’s technique is a very powerful way of peeling away the layers and getting closer to the root, but try not to be too mechanical about it! There’s more than one way to ask “why” to make it sound less like an inquisition –  for example:
    •  “What makes you say that?”,
    • “What led you to that decision?”,
    • “Why do you think that might be?”,
    • “Was there a reason for that?”…
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • Can you share a story which illustrates this? (Capture these on video/audio if possible.)

Questions to construct advice, recommendations or principles for the next team.

  • What would you say to a colleague about to start the same kind of project, to help them repeat your success?
  • Imagine you were having a drink with a close friend, and they mentioned that they were about to take a similar approach to the one you took – what advice would you give them to help them avoid the pitfalls you encountered?  Specifically, what should they do or not do?
  • If you could go back in time to the start of this project and shout something in your ear, what three pieces of advice would you give yourself

Questions for de-risking discussions about failure. (Works best with multiple projects represented.)

  • Imagine for a minute you were writing a guide on how to screw up projects of this type – what would your top tips be?


The truth is in there, if we can ask the right questions…

Young Tree Carved Inside Old Tree

Confucius is the next in my series of famous leaders on knowledge management, although he spoke much more about learning and wisdom than knowledge itself.


Confucius introduced three key virtues:  Rén, Li and Yi.

Rén relates to humanity, and the relationships between two people. It causes people to remember that they is never alone, and that everyone has these relationships to fall back on, being a member of a family, the state, and the world.

(Or a network, I’m sure we could add today)

Li consists of the norms of proper social behaviour as taught to others by fathers, village elders and government officials. The teachings of li promoted ideals such as brotherliness, righteousness, good faith and loyalty. The influence of li guided public expectations, such as the loyalty to superiors and respect for elders.  Li is sometimes describes as “the way things society expects things to be”.

Finally. Yi is an internal controller which gives the person the ability to make right judgments about the people and situations and to react accordingly. Confucius stated that truth can be hidden sometimes and most common reaction to the situation is not always the best one and the possession of Yi principle helps to define the true nature of things.

You could say that Li will get you to a proper answer, Yi will get you to a correct answer.


This distinction between the Li and Yi  in relation to the relational virtue of R
én reminds me of the impact of Organisational Network Analysis  when understanding how people make judgements (Yi) about where to find knowledge which might run counter to the official (Li) organisational hierarchy. 

I often describe it to clients as “taking an x-ray of the organisation to see what really happens, rather than what the organisation chart suggests”.

The map below contains such a wealth of insight compared with the organisation chart.  The colours of the nodes represent functional expertise, the size of each node is the length of service, the colour “heat” of the lines represents the frequency of communication and the arrow heads show the direction of technical requests.  No wonder the team spent nearly an hour drawing out conclusions and actions!

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 15.32.18

So getting back to Confucius – what did he say which we would relate to knowledge management?  Here are my top ten – a journey from ignorance to reflection, learning, adopting good practice, double-loop learning and transferring knowledge to others…

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

“To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

“Study the past if you would define the future.”

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

“Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

“You cannot open a book without learning something.”

“If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.”

“Reviewing what you have learned and learning anew, you are fit to be a teacher.”

…and one for you Cynefin zealots out there:

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

Having spent the last few weeks exploring what’s wrong with lessons learned, it’s time to turn our attention towards the elements that contribute to successful organisational learning.


As we piece this puzzle together, one of the most important principles to bear in mind is that of knowing your customer.

It sounds obvious, but in my experience it’s often overlooked.  Just who is customer for the learning?

1. The current team.

One clear customer is the team who are conducting the review.  A well-facilitated review will not only surface technical, commercial and process-related learning, but also personal, behavioural and team-related insights. Even if the activity was a one-off, never-to-be-repeated project, there will always be learning relevant to each individual – provided the team explores the right questions.

Imagine a research team is working on a vaccine for an incurable disease.  After years of experimentation, analysis and a little luck, they stumble upon the antidote.  The team is ecstatic – they have a formula in their hands that could improve the lives of thousands of people.  So they secretly inoculate themselves, disband the team and each individual starts on their next challenge.

Now imagine the outcry!  That would be outrageous – a waste of extensive research. Commercially disastrous and selfish to the point of immorality!

There is a research team hidden in every operational project we do – it’s just that we fail to help them realise and multiply the value in what they have discovered – which takes us to customer type number 2:

2. The next team.
One year ago, a large number of representatives from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games conducted an extensive debrief. That debrief wasn’t carried out in London.  Instead, it was conducted in Rio de Janeiro, in the presence of the Rio 2016 team, facilitated by the IOC.  Not only that, but the time was deliberately managed such that 50% of each day was available for connecting, networking and asking further questions., as well as exchanging documentation.
The customer was clear – it was the next team.

Sometimes we know who exactly the next team (or teams) will be, and we can set up relationships, staff transfers, conversations, forums to ask questions, site visits, peer assists, peer reviews.  The IOC do all of this very well.
When we know who our customers are, then we can connect the supply with demand. Dialogue-based approaches are the most effective mechanisms for this.

However, there are times when we don’t know who the next team will be – but we’re sure that there will be one at some time.  We can’t afford to wait until the demand surfaces, because the supply (the current team) will have already been disbanded, and may well have left the organization.  In these cases we do need to capture some record of the context and the learning, and where it is relevant, to express this as principles, propositions, recommendations or specific advice for the next team, whoever they might be.

We need to ask the right questions (more on this the next post); questions which make the current team think about the needs of an imaginary future team:

  • “What would you say to a team about to start on a similar project?”
  • “If you had just 5 minutes with them, what key pieces of advice would you give them, based on your experiences?”
  • “How could they repeat your successes; how could they ensure that they avoid the low points you faced?”

In practice, it can be difficult to convince a busy team that they need to invest time together for the benefit of some future imaginary team. They know it makes sense, but they usually have other priorities, even if there is a requirement in the project process that they need to comply with.  Compliance rarely generates thoughtful dialogue.

You will want to start with them as the customer, and bring the questions around to the future once they have warmed up, and seen some personal benefit.  You may need to appeal to people’s professionalism and pride to get them to engage in the idea of being recognized for leaving a legacy.  Indeed, some organisations have recognition schemes in place for exactly this. (ConocoPhillips’ “Gather” award, and Syngenta’s “Embed” award are both examples of this.)

Of course, when we take on a customer mindset, we need to consider more than just what they need to know.  We have to think equally as hard about how they would like to receive this knowledge.  You can bet that they don’t want a copy of a flipchart sporting a set of bullet points from a meeting that they were not present at!  They would probably like to have context, contacts, reasons for decisions, artifacts, quotations, narrative, references, top tips, things to avoid… – all nicely structured and easy to navigate.

When we understand that we have knowledge customers, then we need to consider our knowledge products.

More on this at a later date.

3. The Organisation itself.

So the current and future teams are clear enough, but how does the organisation become a customer?

It’s the best way I could think of to describe the idea of improving the structural capital – the processes, guidelines, protocols, standards, policies, training, development and formal ways of working.  I have had the privilege of spending time with the IOC over the past two years, and their approach to closing the loop and translating learning into technical guidance through their technical manuals is a great example of this.

An effective “lessons learned programme” does to simply pass the baton to the next team, neither does if make it’s goal in life the develop a library of lessons learned.  The focus should always be on improvement.  The question should be “how do we ensure that actions follow which remove the risk, or bake-in the benefits that our learning has uncovered?”.  I covered this in my BMW shaggy-dog story earlier last year.

The question “what have we learned?” should be followed by  “what should we do about this?”.  A learning log needs to have an actions log.

When we apply KM in Safety context we do this without another thought.  If someone is killed, injured or in the event of a near miss, a sequence of safety-related review processes are initiated, root causes are understood, risks mitigated, procedures updated, communication planned and training delivered.

We are good at closing the loop between a moment of learning and a permanent change in the structural capital.  Hopefully this is because we don’t want to kill or injure anyone, and hence care enough to make someone accountable for looking for risks and actions in every fragment of learning.

In my experience, other topics don’t receive this level of attention, even though the commercial value at stake might be significant.  Something we could learn from there.

False customers.

Just a few words about other stakeholders who are sometimes unhelpfully referred to as the customer for learning.

The customer is the project management process.

Never heard anyone say that?  Well, perhaps you’ve heard them express the same sentiment when them say: “the process says we need to have a review before proceeding to the next stage gate”.
That’s more or less the same mindset.  We need to raise the sights of our project teams to see the real customer – themselves, the next team, or the betterment of the organization, which ultimately will improve relationships with a real external customer.

The customer is the regulator.

In some regulated businesses, there is an expectation that effective learning and improvement cycles are in place. This is a good thing!   Sadly, the regulators often look for evidence of inputs (because that’s what how they can measure compliance and consistency) rather than outputs (where the customer creates the value).  This can launch an industry of lessons logs and registers, unproductive reviews and ineffective debriefs, again the real customer has been lost and regulatory compliance has become a distraction.

This can be difficult, as nobody wants to do the work twice.  I recommend a dialogue with the regulating body to find out what they are actually looking for, rather than making assumptions that they have a preferred format. In my experience, regulators are specialists in their subject matter, but not specialists in organisational learning.  Engage them in a discussion about your preferred approach and propose different or additional sources of evidence of learning and transfer (for example: meetings in schedules, testimonies from individuals, candidates for recognition schemes).

Let’s keep our focus on the true customers, and magnify the benefits.


Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at three of the inherent weaknesses of “Lessons Learned” and the way the label is perceived:  Passiveness, Negativity and Ambiguity.
We will move onto a more positive note soon, but before we do, I want to introduce one further weakness:  Bad Teachers.


At this point I want to make it clear that I have seen the Diaz/Timberlake/Segel film of the same name, and that they are 92 minutes of my life that I would like to have back! However, the image was too good not to use.

What do I mean by bad teaching?

In the educational sense of the word, a lesson is deliberately crafted and designed in order to teach.  I can say from experience of being married to a teacher, that every hour of teaching she delivers requires another hour to cover preparation, marking and feedback to the learners.

Lessons are carefully formulated to take account of learning styles, levels of capability and connections with other parts of the syllabus. They evaluate understanding, they build on prior knowledge, they include references to further exploration and they have measurable outcomes.

Our bullet point lessons look a bit lame now, don’t they?

“Ah, but we’re not in the business of education”, I hear you say.
Well, perhaps we should make education more of our business!

There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote which teachers hate – my wife included.  You’ve probably heard it.

Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.


But there’s a corollary to this, which I’d like to add:

Those who can do, often can’t teach.


And that’s often our problem.

A project team successfully learns something from a project review meeting.  A lot of their learning is internalized, and the “lesson” they write down on that flipchart makes sense to them.

But it doesn’t make sense to the next team who will be using it. Just because I’ve learned something doesn’t make it a lesson for everyone else when I write it down.

Imagine my wife visiting an Egyptology exhibition and giving the brochure to her class on Monday morning whilst announcing “Hey class 4, this is what I learned about the Egyptians over the weekend – why don’t you take a look!”
It’s not what she learned that matters, it’s what she teaches.

So how do you prepare a lesson which becomes a good teacher?

  • Think about the customer for the knowledge.  Who will be reading this?  What questions would they have?
  • Consider the context.  In what situations would this lesson be relevant?  Is it specific or general recommendation?  A good practice? Something to bear in mind?  Something to avoid?
  • Provide the back-story. Help the reader to understand the circumstances which gave rise to your experience to help them make sense of what you learned and make a judgement on its applicability in their context.
  • Illustrate the lesson with artifacts, images, documents, quotes, videos, references and links to provide a richness to the learning experience.
  • Don’t separate the lesson from it’s source. Ensure that the person behind the story behind the lesson is clearly referenced.  Include a photo and full contact details.
  • Show where it fits with other lessons.  Signpost other relevant lessons and content by drawing together related content into a “knowledge asset”.
  • Keep it fresh. Revisit the content periodically to ensure that it is still current, relevant, and illustrated with the best examples.

That way, we can be those who can do, can learn and can teach.

In the last few posts we’ve been exploring what’s wrong with the way we position “lessons learned”.  In part one, we looked at the passive problem of people’s tendency to focus on the lessons rather than the activity of learning.  In part two, we looked at the negative associations of the term ‘lessons’, and the impact that this can have.

In part three, I want to look at the problem of ambiguity.

The label “lessons learned” trips off the tongue easily, but that doesn’t mean that everybody hears it in the same way. Learning appears in more than one place on an learning loop, so there is plenty of room here for confusion. It can be an output, an input, or an agent of change.
Here is one, very simple question you can ask to check whats going on in your lessons learned process.

Who is learning?

Here are potential three recipients of the learning – let’s imagine we give a badge of recognition in each case:


It could be person or team who had the experience, who completed the activity and then reflected upon it.

In this case, learning is an output.


It could be a function or department who learn from a team’s experience and make a change to a process, policy, standard or working practice –  thereby reducing the risk or improving the prospects for everyone who follows. In this case, learning is an agent of change to the structural capital of the organisation. It becomes an embedded inheritance for all who follow.


It could be another team about to commence a new activity who are learning from the experience of a previous team. In this case, learning is an input. This input could proactively pushed to another team, or pulled by the new team, through a peer assist, for example.

It’s important to recognise that all of of these are valid and desirable outcomes , or there’s a danger that we allow learning from lessons to be a slightly self-indulgent team huddle.  Worse still, we focus on building the library of lessons rather than actioning the change that the learning should produce, see my earlier shaggy dog story about selling a BMW.

MAKE award winners ConocoPhillips and Syngenta both recognise the need to lubricate all parts of the learning and sharing cycle with appropriate senior recognition.

ConocoPhillips have their 4G awards:  Give (sharing knowledge), Grab (applying someone else’s knowledge), Gather (consolidating knowledge), Guts (sharing learning from failure).

Agri-business Syngenta loved this, and created their own TREE awards along very similar lines:  Transfer, Re-use, Embed and [share a difficult] Experience.

In each case, senior leaders are involved in judging and celebrating the best examples of these essential behaviours, and the teams or individuals concerned receive a physical recognition award.  It’s very clear who is learning, who is sharing, what is improving and where the value is – all of which is the best antidote for ambiguity.

Syngenta TREE award

Syngenta TREE award

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

Tricky one eh?


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