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Lessons learned is not a new concept and has provided many benefits for organisations over the years. There are numerous reasons why so often attempts at lessons learned end in failure – is one of these that it suffers from an image problem. Is it now time to rebrand and improve the lessons learned experience?

Author: Emma Dufty

Lessons learned have been around a long time, the concept has great potential and if implemented correctly can give your business a competitive advantage, yet so many attempts at lessons learned end in failure. 

So why is this?

The name itself “lessons learned” seems to imply negativity.  While this is not normally the intention of a lessons learned event try telling a group of people you are scheduling a lessons learned meeting and their reaction will tell you otherwise!  People don’t want to dwell on the past and in the modern business environment we often move on to the next project without taking time to reflect and review. 

Is it time to change the wording and make learning a positive experience?  Is it the word ‘lessons’ that acts as a trigger to start people thinking in a particular way, does this word imply we are teaching people lessons rather than create environments that enable people to share and learn? As Chris Collinson highlights, lessons learned is a noun.  Learning is a verb. 

There are many alternatives to the term lessons learned, the US Army term use After Action Review (AAR), in projects they now have retrospectives (although many will say these are different from lessons learned as they are ongoing throughout a project, a subject for another time maybe), NASA uses Pause and Learn (PAL), others pause and reflect or learn from experience.

At the end of the day it is only a label and it is the process that is important. The process should be reflective, not just focussing on the negative but also recognising and rewarding what went well.  The learning element should be about building positively upon this, it should not been seen as a chore but as something that improves “the way we do things round here”. 

Unfortunately I believe the term lessons learned has become tarnished, the process currently is seen as a chore, a tick box exercise to complete a project.  Lessons learned needs an image makeover, it needs to be seen as a positive action, something that begins at the start of the project with learning from experience and a process that continues throughout.   A name change itself can’t alter anything on its own, but if it can act as a catalyst to change the process to create a positive learning environment and add value then it is certainly worth a rebrand.