February 2018
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Capturing Lessons Learned

Tool: Avoid the finger-pointing and capture the knowledge

The ability to learn from from mistakes is a key function. It is central to risk management, a main focus of rapid prototyping and central to effective iterative planning and development. One of the biggest obstacles to learning from mistakes is assigning blame. There is a simple way to avoid one and achieve the other – effective learning reviews.

The “Why Wesabe lost to Mint” story making its rounds is an interesting case for several reasons. First, it tells the inside story of what when wrong and, two, the former head of Wesabe, Marc Hedlund, is taking responsibility.

The first point is remarkable, because avoidance and denial are the standard responses to failure. The second is remarkable because the other standard responses to failure are  finger-pointing and dodging blame.

Why look back instead of focusing on the future?

Sometimes failure can teach us more than success – and sometimes we lose sight of what we do well. Failing on purpose, as in stress-testing, for example, can show us thelimits of a product or process. Either way, if we can move beyond the avoidance, denial, finger-pointing, and blame-dodging, then there is a real opportunity to learn.

Sounds good, but how do you do it?

Whether you call it a post mortem, an after action review, or just do it without labeling it, the focus needs to be on the lessons learned. Briefly, the format consists of:

  • a restating the task and purpose
  • a short review of what occurred
  • finally, listing three things which went well that should be sustained and three things which did not that can be improved.

The facilitator’s role

This requires a facilitator who is not going to point fingers – and that requires a lot of discipline.

The facilitator needs to create an atmosphere where people are willing to share what they learned instead of defending their actions. It can be done like this:

Participant A: We did X, because we thought it would help achieve Y. Unfortunately Z occurred because of Q and S. This showed us that a better approach would have been T.

Participant A did not attempt to justify why they thought X was the right decision and instead explains what happened – and what they learned.


The place to correct subordinates for their mistakes is not in front of their peers. Focus on getting your list of three things to sustain and three things to improve. If you need to improve a single team member’s performance, do it one on one. Embarrassing them in front of their colleagues might feel satisfying, but there are more effective ways to correct performance. Worse, it will not create the freedom to look at what happened and find the solutions that you hopefully seek to achieve.

“Three Ups & Three Downs”

One of the benefits of this format is its focus on capturing the lessons learned instead of the blow by blow replay of what happened when and why. The question asked of the review subsequently becomes, “what were the ‘ups and downs’?”, and not “who got blamed?”

This tool does not protect potential guilty parties, but instead helps avoid mixing apples and oranges. If there are people to reward, reward them at a separate event – and in front of their peers. If you need to find a head to put on a stake, then by all means do so – but do it separately as well. Don’t let assigning blame get in the way of lessons to be learned from the event.

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