Friday, August 04, 2017

The Ownership of Lessons

Earlier this week I attended a panel discussion on "The Role of Learning in Policymaking" organized by the Society for International Development's Policy and Learning Workgroup. I took a lot of notes because it was all very interesting but I'll focus here on one issue that hit a nerve for me:  Lessons learned ownership.

There are many reasons why some lessons are not "learned"  We don't believe them, we don't care enough, we forget them, etc....   I'm only going to focus here on one reason: Lack of ownership.  In other words, the hypothesis is that the ownership of a lesson contributes significantly to its utilization.

This lack of ownership comes in (at least) two flavors, two variations on the "not invented here" theme:

1. We don't learn very well from other people;  We learn better from our own experience -- and even then it's far from perfect because of personal biases and other issues.  Even if we understand and agree with someone else's lesson, we may not think it applies to us.  We don't own it.

2. We don't like being told what we should learn, especially if someone else's conclusion doesn't match ours. Why would I care about someone else's idea of what I should learn?  Did I ask for this "feedback"?  It is being offered in a way that's useful to me?  Sometimes we just don't want to own it.  We actively resist it because we didn't come up with it.

Example:  A donor agency makes policy recommendations to a developing country government based on strong donor-collected "evidence."  Let's face it, we can't get out own government to always act upon strong "evidence," so why do we expect other countries to act upon donor-generated lessons. Ownership needs to be built in from the beginning, not mandated at the end.  We might all know that but does it always happen?  I don't think so.

From Ownership to Action
To say that lessons are not learned until something is changed (in policy, procedures, behavior, etc...) is perhaps cliche and misleading or at least not very useful.  Over the past 9 years of helping project teams identify lessons from their experience, I have found that statement to be disconnected from reality.  If not totally disconnected from reality, I found the one-to-one linear relationship between lesson and action to get to "learning" to be a gross oversimplification.  Some of this oversimplification has to do with the lack of discussion of lesson ownership.

Having facilitated more than 100 lessons learned discussion sessions, I can now quickly identify ownership red flags in lessons learned conversations.  A lot has to do with the pronouns being used. I try to provide ground rules upfront encouraging the use of "I" and "we" and making sure the group is clear about who "we" refers to.  Blaming individuals or entities who are not in attendance and hinting at lessons intended for "them" ("They should do ________.") are both big red flags. It doesn't mean the conversation needs to stop, but it needs to be redirected to address ownership issues and ultimately increase the chances that some action will be taken.

At that point, the facilitator's redirect can go into two different directions and sometimes both are needed:
  • "Assume THEY didn't hear you right now and they're going to keep doing it their way (i.e, they are not going to learn).  What can you do next time to avoid this or at least mitigate the problem?"
  • "Is there an avenue for giving them this feedback so that they might do something about it (i.e., they might learn) and this problem isn't repeated?"
In the real world, where lessons that are documented don't automatically turn into actions, that's how I try to deal with ownership issues.  I primarily work with project teams, but their work requires interactions with many stakeholders external to the team.  Sometimes what is most needed is for separate lessons learned sessions with different set of stakeholders and then some discussion of lessons across the different sets.  It's not necessary to look for perfect consensus across the different groups, just to optimize understanding of the different perspectives.

It feels as if I'm only skimming the surface here.  More percolation needed.

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