Most leaders acknowledge the value of learning from past experience. Some organizaitons have established highly regarded best practices for deriving lessons learned from past projects. For instance, the U.S. Army pioneered the After-Action Review process, and it has documented the substantial benefits derived from the systematic use of this lessons learned methodology. Still, most leaders don't spend nearly enough time faciltating these types of activities or empowering their people to engage in this type of work. Why? What seems to be preventing these powerful learning experiences from occurring in organizations? The usual answer is time. We hear responses such as the following: "We would love to conduct postmorterms, but who has the time to perform that work?" "We are always rushing off to implement the next set of plans." "No one rewards you for taking time out to review and learn from past experiences."
In my view, time represents a significant challenge, but these types of explanations often mask a deeper problem in the organization. What are the true impediments to engaging in after-action reviews?
1. Blame culture. People fear that the process will degenerate into a finger-pointing exercise, rather than a true learning experience. In these types of organizations, people fear talking about mistakes and how to learn from them, because they don't want to be accused of being part of the problem.
2. Lack of systemic thinking. In many organizations, explanations of past failure tend to be individualistic, i.e. who was the rotten apple that needed to be thrown out of the bunch? Learning organizations embrace systemic explanations for past success and failure, i.e. was the barrel rotten, and therefore, did it spoil some of the apples? Systemic explanations for failures do not preclude managers from holding people accountable for negligent or irresponsible acts. However, they help managers understand multiple factors that may contribute to success and failure.
3. Attribution error. Psychologists have shown that people often attribute others' failures to character flaws, lack of expertise, or other internal deficiencies. However, we explain our own failures quite differently. We blame external events or factors beyond our control. Such distortions in our attributions may explain why we do not engage in lessons learned exercises as frequently as we should.
4. Low leader self-awareness. In some enterprises, leaders have tried to facilitate such after-action reviews, and the efforts have not been fruitful. Thus, they choose not to spend time performing them again. However, these leaders often are not aware that their presence and influece during the after-action review discouraged candid dialogue. Thus, the group did not generate powerful lessons learned, as people refrained from discussing the tough issues. Leaders sometimes lack the awareness to recognize how their behavior and presence may have distorted the dialogue during an after-action review process.