Learn from triumph and disaster

There should be no difference to learning from success and failure.

Kipling wrote, in “If” –  “if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same..”. 

As knowledge managers we try to collect lessons from projects which have been triumphs and projects which have been disasters, but these are seldom treated the same way by the project teams.

If you read through a lessons learned database from a British, US or Australian organisation, you get the feeling that projects never go right. The database will be full of lessons from failure, with almost no success-based lessons.

If you read through a lessons learned database from a Middle Eastern or Far Eastern organisation, you get the feeling that projects never go wrong. The database will be full of lessons from success, with almost no failure-based lessons.

OK, the statements above are generalisations and your particular company may differ, but there is a reality behind them representing two different biases; in the first case, the bias against “showing off to your peers”; in the second case, the bias against “appearing to have failed in front of your manager”. These two biases affect the way in which teams approach the collection of lessons.

In reality, of course, we need to learn from both success and failure, particularly when these are unexpected. We need to seize on, and repeat, the breakthroughs, and map out and eliminate the pitfalls. As someone from NASA told me a couple of years ago – there are no successes and failures, there are just events. NASA learns from events.  In other words, NASA treats those two impostors – triumph and disaster – just the same when it comes to learning.

Also as far as the user of the lessons is concerned, they don’t actually care whether the lesson came from success or failure, so long as
a) it is well written,
b) they trust the provenance, and
c) it helps them deliver their own project better, cheaper, faster.

In both the case of failure and success, the lesson will be written in the same way; a set of recommendations and advice, supported by context (in the form of a story) which helps them internalise the lesson.

So when you meet with triumph and disaster, success and failure, treat them just the same in terms of learning. 

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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