Tuesday 13 October 2015

Don't limit learning through "top 10" lists

Transferring only the "Top 3" or "Top 10" lessons creates an arbitrary and unnecessary limit on learning.

I reviewed a project a few years ago where the team decided to collect and discuss on their Top 10 lessons (actually 20, as they captured the Top 10 engineering lessons, and the Top 10 project management lessons).

It puzzles me why they chose 10 lessons. This was a multi billion dollar project, and I bet they learned more than 10 things. So why restrict it to 10? Why not 12? What if there were 15 lessons - would we not record numbers 11 through 15?

Imagine I had been through a powerful learning experience, and learned many things. Imagine you came to me and asked me to share what I knew, and I said "I learned about 20 things, but I am only prepared to share 10 of them with you".  Would not not be a little annoyed? Especially if you ended up making repeat mistakes in areas 11 through 20?

Perhaps people limit investigation to the Top 10 to avoid overloading the organisation.

This may be a worthy aim, but no organisation I know of is overloaded by learning. Generally there is a dearth of good knowledge available, and people are very pleased to receive good helpful material.

I can understand restricting to 10 lessons if the lessons are turgid and boring and not very helpful, but that can’t be our aim, surely? I blogged a while ago about the project which generated 700 lessons, of which 400 were reused, resulting in savings of tens of millions of dollars. What would have happened if they had restricted themselves to 10? 390 opportunities for learning and improvement would never have been re-used, and 97.5% of the value would have been lost.

Perhaps people limit investigation to the Top 10 to avoid overloading themselves.

Perhaps they think that documenting lessons is not really worth doing and that it would a lot of effort, so lets high grade only the most important lessons. This may be a more likely scenario. But I think that's an unhelpful attitude. Why not identify all the valuable and reusable learning points, whether it's 9, 15, 19, 29? Why not document them all?

Why stop at 10?


Ian said...

I think one of the reasons for "Top 10" lists is that they are appealing and manageable for readers. While it's certainly worthwhile to capture all the lessons you can - it's probably not that useful for the calual reader who may not have the patience to go through everything.

There's some evidence that artivcles titles like "7 things you never knew about Donald Trump" are much more likely to be opened and read which is why sites like Buzzfeed do this so much. In UNICEF's internal communication team have developed a successful "5 questions with" series. for most of the interviewees you could easily ask them many more than 5 questions - but 5 (or 10) is a good way to get over the most important information.

I think the trick is to document and make available everything you can - but to use the number trick to get people to open the document in the first palce and to convey the most critical messages - but then include copius referneces or links to "ifd you want to know more about this topic" which allows readers full access to the rich content if they have the patience to get that far.

Nick Milton said...

Hi Ian

I would not save lessons all in one document, as different lessons have different readership. A project may learn lessons about mobilisation, communication, contracting etc, and these lessons will be most easily found if they are tagged by topic, not clustered by project. Therefore they cease to be a list as soon as they are captured.

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