The Challenge of Lessons Learned


Are “Lessons Learned” Real?

I've spent the week talking with business owners at CaboPress. One of the things that constantly surprises me is how much we know collectively that we don't apply to our own, or each others' situations. It makes you wonder if lessons learned are really learned at all.

How many times have you said you’d charge more? How many times have you said you’d manage expectations better (up front)? How many times have you said you knew you needed to do something, only to not move on it? How many times have you taken on a project you knew wasn’t right – and told yourself you’d never do it again – only to do it again?

We don’t learn from ourselves. And we don’t learn from others very well either.

I want to get at the heart of this today but to do it I’m going to need to tell you a couple stories.

Red Adair & the Oil Well Fire

There’s a story of an oil well in Saudi Arabia that caught on fire. The amount of oil was creating a fire that couldn’t be extinguished. So a famous firefighter Red Adair was called in.

Red knew that if he got enough foam on the fire, he could put it out. But there weren’t any hoses large enough to get the quantity of foam onto the fire fast enough to have the impact he wanted.

Instead of waiting for another option, he stationed men around the fire with smaller hoses and hit the fire all at once from every direction. So much foam hit the fire that the blaze was extinguished and Red earned his three million dollar fee.

It’s an incredible story of how one person could creatively solve a problem even under constraints. We face several challenges like this every day: problems with insurmountable challenges that need creative solutions.

The Tumor that will Kill You

Imagine you’re a doctor that faces this kind of challenge with a patient who has a malignant tumor in their stomach. It’s impossible to operate on the patient. Without operation, however, they're going to die. The tumor needs to be destroyed. There is a kind of ray that could kill the tumor but it’s such a strong ray that all the healthy tissue it passes through would be destroyed. Lower intensity rays are harmless but they won’t kill the tumor either.

The Rebel General

Put yourself in the shoes of a general. His small country was ruled from a centralized fortress by a dictator who had no desire to leave. The general knew if he could get his whole army to attach the fortress, he could take it over. But before he launched his army, he learned that all the roads to the fortress had mines on them and even though his men could get by in small groups, mass deployment of his troops (in tanks) on any of these roads would lead to detonation and blowing up his own men.

What Do You Do?

In 1980, two researchers asked people to solve the medical problem I just shared with you. At some point before asking them about it, they were shown a generic diagram depicting how Red Adair solved his fire problem. But because it wasn’t directly before being asked to solve this problem, they were unable to see similarities and leverage the diagram to form a solution.

Their ability to solve the problem was 10%.

If they were asked to remember things they'd read before (like the military problem I shared with you), they still had trouble applying the lessons learned. Problem solving increase to 30%. But only if they gave them hints – like “remember Red Adair” – would the rate jump to 75%.

Here’s the thing you need to note: Life doesn’t give us hints.

In 1987, two more researchers decided to try things again. They thought maybe the problem was the diagrams themselves. They created better images.

The result of their tests? Identical. (I know, hard to believe.) So they added a general principle at the bottom of the images.

“If you need a large force to accomplish some purpose, but are prevented from applying such a force directly, many smaller forces applied simultaneously from different directions may work just as well”

This had a positive effect but there were still challenges to getting everyone to solve the problem.

Making it Work

So finally subjects were given the multiple stories and asked to write down how they were similar. Only when they had created the link between the stories and the similarities could they see the solution to the tumor issue.

It had worked!

The moral of the story is that we think concretely. But to transfer our lessons to different situations, we need to think more abstractly. And there aren’t a lot of easy ways to help us, and others we work with, think more abstractly.

Equally important, it means we’re not applying known solutions. We may have the solutions right in front of us, but without the clarity of relevance, without the “hint”, we are missing it. We just can’t connect the dots.

Applying Lessons Learned

This week I had tons of conversations and one of them was on competitive analysis. As I was talking about my own lessons learned, I realized that it takes work and consistency to help us all develop the ability to think more abstractly and to leverage what we already know.

What if you want to leverage all the known solutions you already have within your organization? What do you do?

  1. Get people talking – summarizing what they’re learning.
  2. Get people listening – asking how these lessons could apply to them.
  3. Get people trying – only when they try (regardless of outcome), will they really come away with some lessons learned.

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