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Why “Lessons Learned” Aren’t … and What To Do About It


Darling, Marilyn, Signet Consulting Group, Boston, MA


Some form of “lessons learned” method is built into most technical project management processes (milestone reviews, retrospectives, post-mortems). Why do they so often fail to produce true “lessons learned” (i.e., behavior changes, mistakes are understood and not repeated, innovations are captured and refined, and results improve in future projects)? In a fluid, perpetually dynamic environment, how can lessons from the past be relevant and useful in the future?

Our ten years of research and practice have led to a deep understanding of the problem of learning from experience and transferring lessons from one project to another. The field of Emergent Learning aims to provide an alternative approach that increases the chance that, even in a dynamic environment, lessons do in fact get “learned” and impact future results.

At its core, Emergent Learning challenges the notion that learning happens after the fact, in a post-mortem activity. It challenges traditional definitions of “knowledge” and of “best practices,” and offers an alternative process for generating and expanding organizational know how. Leadership and accountability take a more central role in Emergent Learning than in the way most organizations approach learning and knowledge management.

Two of the tools used extensively in Emergent Learning are the well-regarded After Action Review, which grew out of the U.S. Army’s experience in Vietnam, and Emergent Learning Maps™, a tool we created to help teams identify and apply lessons in their work and to structure knowledge sharing across projects, functions and regions.

Darling will offer specific examples of how to apply the tools of Emergent Learning to improving technical results, especially in dynamic environments, and explore implications for technical leadership.