Getting Lessons “Right” vs. Getting Lessons Used

I haven’t been to the JFK Presidential Library in Boston in a long time. I was inspired to make a visit recently to see a special exhibit, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” I’ve always been intrigued by what the key players were thinking during one of the closest calls in our nation’s history.

I had read a Boston Globe article this fall about the Cuban Missile Crisis that had me thinking: Is it more important to make sure that the lessons we learn are the “right” lessons, or is it more important that we put to use whatever lessons we have been able to gather?

In this Boston Globe article (10/21/12), Jordan Michael Smith described how JFK formulated his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis by recalling, and insisting that all of his Navy officers read, The Guns of August. The book described how WWI came to pass even though no one wanted a war. “Every country on the continent miscalculated, underestimating the economic and military costs of a potential war, the likelihood of one breaking out, the possibility of a single event spiraling out of control, and their opponents’ willingness to fight.”

Kennedy used that lesson to reign in his Joint Chiefs of Staff who recommended a full scale attack and invasion of Cuba. History tells us that it was the right decision. But it turns out that that lesson was wrong. Subsequent research has shown that Germany did, indeed, want the war to happen. As Smith observes, “past events are so complex and so specific to their contexts that they don’t necessarily yield a single correct lesson.” He goes on to draw the conclusion that “the value of history to leaders depends more on who applies it than on how well they really grasp the past.”

This story reinforces at least a couple of important principles we hold dear in Emergent Learning:

  1. It’s hard to learn good lessons post-facto from big, complex events or pieces of work. Everyone comes to their own conclusions, based on their perspective and biases.
  2. Lessons get learned when they get used, not when they get written down.

Our clients often ask “How important is it to conduct an After Action Review immediately, while the experience is fresh?” The obvious answer is “the sooner the better.” But our answer is more nuanced: If you will only give yourselves an hour or two to engage in learning from the past to improve future performance, we would prefer that you spend that time reflecting just before the next piece of action than after the last one – especially if there will be a long time gap in between.

We have clients who tell us about running what seems like the same post-mortem conversation with teams year after year. They bemoan the fact that their organizations don’t seem to be able to break through and learn the lessons that have been so clearly identified.

Ultimately, more and better learning happens by applying what may be sketchy recollections of past events than by compiling a really complete and accurate analysis and report that sits on the shelf and never gets used. Even if the lesson is wrong or the story is off the mark, as Smith suggests about The Guns of August, it leads you to ask a question you may not have thought of otherwise and to see and consider an idea that may not have otherwise been on the table.

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