Lessons Taught, Learned, Forgotten, and Ignored

It’s easy to say a lesson was learned and far more difficult to show it to be true. What can we do to best to learn from what’s happened to us and not allow often difficult, painful, hard-fought lessons to go unlearned?

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear


A lesson is defined as something learned (often a student — and we’re all students).

We often hear of or undertake ‘Lessons Learned’ reviews in our organizations. The aim of such things is to gather, reflect and integrate what we’ve been taught into our memory and, presumably, into our future practice.

If the pandemic and the politics of the 2020s has taught us anything — provided us with a lesson — it’s that we aren’t good at learning lessons. By ‘we’ I am referring to a wide swath of Western nations (that’s not to say that the same claims might not be made of the rest of the world, it’s just that this is the environment that I know).

Racial injustice, climate change, political discord, and COVID-19 — take your pick. Each of these has seen lessons many taught and questionable learning as a result.

Let’s consider the COVID-19 pandemic as an example and how we can use it — and issues like it — to understand learning and its issues.

Learning Defined and Defied

Learning is defined as the acquisition of new knowledge, practices, skills, values, attitudes, or preferences. Even by such a broad definition, I’d argue we’ve learned little as a society. When the Omicron variant surprised the world with its speed of transmission and spread much of the world was caught flat-footed despite the available knowledge that such a variants’ emergence was both seen as possible by most health professionals and scientists alike and even likely.

To understand why we’ve been so poor at learning, it’s helpful to consider the conditions in which someone actually learns something. Much of it comes down to three words (time, care, and attention) plus another (integration).

1. Attention. It might seem absurd to consider that we’ve not been paying attention to what has been going on, but look closer and what we see is a very scattershot, reactionary approach to our policy, practice and research. There’s been scant evaluation, little time (or energy or appetite) for reflection-in-action and a fatigued workforce in healthcare, government, and front-facing industries like logistics, transportation, retail, and services. Lot’s of complaints, but where is the attention to the greater patterns of what’s happening?

It’s also difficult to reflect and learn when you are utterly exhausted.

2. Time. Being rushed also means we are not devoting the necessary time required to effectively recall, review, and reflect on what we just did. There is much evidence that certain learning can’t be rushed and requires practice, which requires time. All the hacks, tips and tricks we read about might help in small ways, but ultimately we need time to best use our attention.

3. Care. This third piece builds on the other two by reflecting the quality of attention and time. It’s not just the hours, but the quality of those hours that matters. Care also means attending to the right things. If we attend to what’s right in front of us at the expense of the future we risk designing for now and jeopardizing tomorrow. What we are seeing on any given day is the echo of past actions and choices. A care-ful approach to our decisions and strategy remembers this.

4. Integration. This fourth component is a reminder that these three qualities require integration. Sensemaking is all about this integration while design is the manifestation of this integration in practice.

Together, this is innovation in practice. And innovation is learning realized through design.

Designing Learning Systems

Learning fails in bad systems. Good systems are designed. Therefore, we need to design our learning systems rather than assume learning will happen because the lessons are taught.

It means including the means to gather, reflect, and integrate the information and knowledge we allow ourselves to attend to. It also means attending to the right information and limiting the quantity to improve the quality. We face far too much exposure to information and the complexity associated with it to begin to think we can just create wisdom on the fly. Our information systems are designed to distract from slow, measured, and reflective practice. There’s no economy for that.

A bad system neglects this and assumes we will filter out the worst, find the best, and use what’s most appropriate.

There’s no formula for this. It requires praxis that brings together learning, doing, and sensing, wisely. And while there is no formula for this, it is something we can design and evaluate.

A good learning system is something that:

  1. Reduces distraction (preserves and hones attention to find, gather, synthesize and sense-make the most useful information)
  2. Protects/creates/utilizes time (is fit-for-purpose in connecting our knowledge to our purpose and our strategy)
  3. Articulates care (creates principles for practice)
  4. Fits the culture of your organization (creates space for integration)

Thus far, our pandemic has managed to thwart every single one of these qualities of a good learning system in most organizations. An After-Action Review is one place to start if you’re looking to begin. It’s a start and, right now, any start is a good one lest we lose the lessons we’ve suffered so much to be taught and not learn.

To learn more about building and implementing a learning system for your organization reach out to me at Cense and let’s meet for a coffee.

Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash and Nick Morrison on Unsplash

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