We never learn

Do you ever get a sinking feeling as you start a new project or activity? A conviction that somewhere, at some time, a very similar project started, and yet we can’t seem to lay our hands on what happened last time?

The failure to learn from our experiences, and to build on them, is pretty common. We know that we should be constantly learning, as individuals and as organisations, from every activity we undertake. We know that we should be doing it, but somehow it doesn’t happen. We don’t organise things so the next project benefits from our experiences on the last. We carry most of what we learn as individuals in our heads and don’t pass it on to those it would help.

What has been learned can simply evaporate. Corporate amnesia is a serious problem and one that is growing as people move jobs more frequently.

If we know that we should be doing it, what’s stopping us?

The main problem is a perceived lack of value and the pressure of time. Throughout a project we want to get on with it, to make progress, take action. Learning from projects can seem to be an unnecessary overhead.

What we need is a quick and simple way to capture learning that can become a standard tool. It should not interfere with the flow of the project and should add value to the individuals in the team.

The BP approach

Fortunately, an excellent set of tools has been developed which even those who hate dealing with ‘lessons learned’ can tolerate.

I was introduced to these tools by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell nearly 20 years ago when they were both leading knowledge management practitioners within BP. Their methods, along with many other tools for organisational knowledge management, are described in their book “Learning to Fly”.

BP has developed these simple and easy-to-use processes to make sure the organisation learns continuously. They call it learning before, during and after. Although most of the projects in BP are complex engineering tasks, the same sort of approach has been exploited by many other organisations and businesses, from manufacturing to professional services.

Before, during and after

There are three basic processes:

  • Learning before – the Peer Assist
  • Learning during – the After Action Review
  • Learning after – the Project Retrospect

These methods can be used quickly and efficiently without delaying the project or interrupting its flow. Although each tool is used at a specific point in the project life, they share four key questions:

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • What have we learned from any differences?
  • What would we do differently next time?

With these four questions, you can drive learning.

A Peer Assist is used at the beginning of projects. It brings together a group of people from outside the core team to make sure that all the relevant experience in the organisation is mobilised to get the project off to a good start. Usually, you will be asking the helpers about similar projects they were involved in. Did it work? What was unexpected or different? And what would you suggest this team focus on; do or not do?

The After Action Review (AAR) is designed for team learning. It was originally developed by the US Army and has found its way into many other types of organisation. AAR’s are used during a project to help the team improve, and are private to the team. They are fast collective debriefs. Not an exhaustive analysis, but capturing the team’s immediate thoughts, focusing on the key issues and identifying key actions.

A Project Retrospect is a way of wrapping up a completed project and capturing key learning. It is like a larger scale AAR. The same basic questions are asked, but now the focus is on the key messages that we would like to pass on to the next team to tackle something similar. The output is a short document giving those key messages and supporting evidence, together with the names of people who can be contacted for further information.

The important thing is these learning tools can be built into a project without a lot of additional work. Peer Assists and Project Retrospects give the most value for the investment if they take between two hours and half a day. After Action Reviews can be done in 5 minutes, and should probably never take longer than 15 minutes.

You can read some more detailed notes here, or you can buy a copy of “Learning to Fly” which digs much deeper into these and related tools.

Don’t fall for the argument that there is not enough time to learn from your projects. Failing to learn is too expensive.

Projects and Learning
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