Tuesday 25 August 2020

Why you should not talk about "lessons learned" until they really ARE learned

Sometimes you need to change the terminology in order to change the way people think. Maybe we should copy the Army, and do this with the commonly misused phrase "lessons learned."

The term "lessons learned" is in common usage, but can mask the fact that lessons are often identified and seldom learned. People say "we have captured some important lessons learned", when the lessons have been captured but not yet learned.

In military circles however, a strict distinction is made between "lessons identified" and "lessons learned". The former is a potential lesson which has been identified, the latter is a change in practice as a result of actions arising from an identified lesson.

In a fascinating 1988 document "A History of US Army Lessons learning" by Dennis J Vetock, we read the following, and I draw your attenton to the last sentence:
"One relatively minor but inescapable conclusion became increasingly apparent during the course of this study. 
"“Lessons learned” is an unsatisfactory term as commonly used. In virtually every substantive and grammatical instance, “lesson” sufficed for the redundant two-word noun. For a commander to report after an action, for example, that he learned three “lessonslearned” grates upon the tutored ear but, more importantly, implies incomplete understanding of the overall process.  
"That commander may have personally learned some lessons but the US Army did not.
"An army learns lessons after it incorporates the conclusions derived from experience into institutional form. Out of the commander’s experience may come a lesson, and from that lesson may come new or adapted doctrine or perhaps dissemination of potentially useful information. Only after its institutionalization can the lesson be correctly described in the past tense as a lesson learned. Until then it remains just a lesson or usable experience, a semantic distinction that few fully appreciate.  
"We need to speak of “usable experiences” or “lessons” and avoid using “lessons learned,” for once an army learns a lesson, the lesson disappears into doctrine, organization tables, or training programs. Lesson learning is a process, not a product.  
"“Lesson” alone accurately describes processed experience, but trying to change an everyday speech habit may be presumptuous - and not unlike emptying the sea with a bucket. Still, a new consciousness in terminology represents a step toward fuller appreciation of how an army learns lessons."

Vetock therefore proposes just to use the word "Lesson", and a lesson may be identified and then subsequently learned. Lesson learning is the process by which a lesson moves from identification to embedding into process.

If your organisation is using the term "lessons learned" to mean "lessons identified", then it might be worth trying to change the terminology. Although this is hard to do, "a new consciousness in terminology represents a step toward fuller appreciation of how lesson learning actually works".

See if you can ban the term "lessons learned", and just talk about lessons, unless and until they really have been learned. 

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