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  • Writer's picturePeter Wollmann/Frank Kühn

Update: Learning from Lessons Learned - or Magicians’ Rituals?

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Manuscript © 2020 Peter Wollmann / Frank Kühn

Initial Remark

This is the second version of the article. The first version was very well received by a large number of managers, academics and experts. In the broad discussion the authors received some very valuable feedback and suggestions how to further develop the article with their insights, their conceptional evaluation and with its proposals for optimization measures to improve organizational learning.

Management Summary

Why is it so difficult to learn from others’ or even own experiences and translate insights into action? Why do even good leaders tend to repeat fundamental mistakes even though they led or at least were involved in the Lessons Learned Sessions about really relevant problems in a large and complex program or project or a similar initiative or even day-to-day process? Literature is full of recommendations and methods/tools like “8 steps how to sustainably prevent losing the momentum in a transformation”, “12 tools to reach highest effectiveness and efficiency in your program”, “7 methods to motivate difficult teams” etc. A lot of recommendations in literature are great – but they seem not to have been applied as something fundamental goes wrong.

The authors, Frank Kühn and Peter Wollmann, evaluated experiences about lessons learned workshops at the end of a year or a project . They even found that many retrospectives at the end of project phases or during process courses haven’t started either sustainable learning processes even though they proved to be very useful after the last sprint when it came to making the next sprint even more successful. Instead the authors propose a sustainable reply on the challenge of real learning. They start with some significant observations (not pretending that this is a complete list), derive a conceptual consideration and draft a set of optimization measures that can be very well tailored to different settings in projects and processes. They develop their consideration on several levels by discussing learning procedures, learning to learn, learning requirements and systemic learning barriers in organizations.

A Typical Situation and What It Explains

It is a typical situation, very often experienced by the authors in different contexts in the last couple of years. At the end of a year, the upper leadership team wants to take stock of the real success of the project portfolio and the single programs and projects. Responsible managers and experts from the diverse involved lines and the most important projects and program meet for a workshop to prepare the Lessons Learned Report for the upper leadership team. It is – on a high level – easily predictable what the workshop outcome is, these are insights like for instance:

  • Never start a project/program without a dedicated and engaged sponsor who has enough time and internal power to support and solve all fundamental issues.

  • Never start a project/program without an experienced and capable full-time project/program manager and a team with the necessary resources in term of capacity, knowledge, experience etc.

  • Never start a project/program without a defined sufficient budget and make sure that the project direction, detailed plan etc. can be flexibly calibrated at defined milestones if necessary.

  • Never exclude to stop a project or significantly re-direct it even if this causes political problems in the organization.

  • Invest enough time in initiation and conceptualization phases in the beginning.

  • Run regular setting checks with external perspectives to explore proactively if something in the overall setting changed and needs to be regarded (re-planning, optimization measures, coaching etc.)

  • Etc.

There are dozens of such insights and conclusions which appear nearly always – and are more or less known on all levels. The people running those Lessons Learned Sessions are not ignorant at all, on the contrary.

But why do the insights not lead to a step-by-step optimization or even more substantial changes? Why do projects and programs very often fail in coping with such fundamental questions – and not because, for example, at the end a new medication turns out to have too many undesirable side effects after they seemed great in the animal tests.

We talked to a lot of managers in diverse industries and enterprises to collect cases and samples of explanations for the obstacles to learn from lessons learned. It is obvious that there is a variety of explanatory approaches to this situation. These approaches include both psychological and sociological aspects that are relevant in organizational systems and go deeper than any simple recipes. They help the people in organizations – from our experiences - understand what is happening and what is preventing them from drawing true benefit from their lessons learned. We explain some of them as examples which perfectly underline and exemplify the challenges of learning before we frame them with a meta-level analysis concept.

1. Missing time for smart decisions in the VUCA world

The first explanatory approach comes from knowledge management, where the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom has to be distinguished. Data is without context, information creates a first personal association of what might be meant, knowledge is connected with personal experience and an idea how to apply it, wisdom is the sovereignty to deal with information and knowledge responsibly and farsightedly. The last two levels need enough reflection time and trustful interaction which is difficult to reach in hectic times, especially as the relevant people heve not only to understand but also to act differently. This is one reason why managers and leaders under pressure tend to prefer the simple recipes (“The 5 tools to …”).

But there is a fundamental lack: learning needs emotions and motivation, otherwise it will fail or produce suboptimal results. We recall experiences much more effective if they are associated with emotions such as joy, satisfaction, appreciation, disappointment, embarrassment.

This is one reason why behavioral change is not possible without taking the full and deep journey. This also includes the step to knowledge, not only on a personal level but also an organizational level connection with both, personal and organizational experience and practice. Maybe in the current VUCA world the demand for or capability of prioritization between urgency and importance, between operations and strategy, between short- and long-term is overwhelming and the patience of stakeholders is limited. Maybe that classical managers’ profiles focus on command and control, putting people into organizational boxes and make them function there. But what are the consequences? A certain resignation or fatalism may come up, especially with ambitious, motivated and interested people who feel the limitations in the current settings. So, what is more risky? What does it mean for the leadership?

2. Future thinking – mission impossible in our evolutionary and social contexts?

The second explanatory approach bases on neurology. Our brain is formed by our experiences. The time span of our present is 3 seconds - then present becomes past, and what has happened some seconds ago is placed in our memory (1). We try to learn for the future and do it from the past. And if we don't like past experiences or feel unable to cope with them, therefore we create illusions (2): Most of us know that many projects fail to achieve their goals (see also topic 4 above). Nevertheless, we continue as usual, agree on unrealistic goals and expect best-case fulfillment. And we feel good because we are socialized in a community of illusionists. We agree on project goals - and know that we will never achieve them. We are enthusiastic about a different way of working - and believe - deep inside ourselves - not in implementation under daily pressure. A conflict between project manager and project sponsor or at least a joint exploration on unknown territory (based upon their different professional ambitions and backgrounds) or even the confrontation between our personal enthusiasms and beliefs would require more energy, i.e. protein; but our nature is trying to prevent us from wasting this valuable stuff, especially if we have had a lot of bad experiences and perhaps therefore prefer to strive for quick outcomes in pure harmony and decide to the postpone any conflict: illusion of feasibility (project manager: we can do it) meets illusion of power (project sponsor: what I say will be done). And if illusionism meets realism? Then we will experience two fundamentalists fighting for their beliefs, or taking each other not seriously nor recognizing the opportunity to learn and develop together. And the fatalist tries to escape from the dispute which he has had often enough before but without the success he had strived for.

The illustration below (Fig. 1) should be interpreted like this: the persons in the middle of the 4-grid-box have some balance between being realistic and illusionary and expecting worst and best cases, which means they are not too enthusiastic or cautious but open for different development. They might be the ones on a productive journey. Worst-case thinkers basing on realistic analysis with special focus on all failures of the past, forgetting all successes, are sarcastic, never believing in any positive developments. A best-case thinker with special focus on all successes in the past, forgetting all failures will be supportive for new developments if he or she is cautious or reflective enough. Worst-case thinkers with a preference for illusions risk to waste valuable energies and motivations as they are pessimistic with what they would prefer to strive for. Vice versa, two persons striving with best-case thinking for illusions are in harmony but risk to invest the enterprise’s resources in unrealistic initiatives.

Fig. 1: If we assume two main thinking tendencies and assume the result of every possible combination of the two contrasting pairs "realism - illusion" and "best case thinking - worst case thinking": What does this mean for lessons learned?

3. Cultural impact – the enterprise’s culture as a significant obstacle for sustainable learning

The third explanatory approach bases on the cultural impact. The system of an enterprise is a strong construction with a lot of conscious and unconscious beliefs and behavioral patterns, like:

  • We are only successful if we show strength: either the figures and performances change (towards what was planned) or the people are exchanged.

  • The more pressure we put on something the more probable it will work out.

  • We got the assignment of the CEO, so we have to start even without a competent project team.

  • It was decided by the upper board, so we have to accept this as the right direction.

  • The COO believes that the migration is possible – even though many enterprises failed on this task.

  • A program like …. is not allowed to cost more than ….

  • We cannot take the needed time as we have to deliver by …. because of competition reasons/the shareholder want it – etc.

There are cultural differences within an organization (between professions, levels, generations etc.) and also at a societal level. Being able to give answers gives you a high status in our society. In other societies, it is understood that good questions are more valuable to create a joint momentum. Singularization and ego-centrism is a societal development in the western world, whereas community and group-thinking is more accepted in the eastern world. Deeply rooted behavioral patterns unfold and become apparent in crises such as the current corona pandemic.

It makes a lot of sense to explore what reasonable and experienced leaders prevent from using their analytic experience, emotional resources and making a difference in their thinking and acting. System theory says that the system is normally stronger than the person and that changes need a lot of time. But creative steps might start a positive development.

4. Cognitive bias – the impossibility to prevent systematic illusions in organizations

Closely connected and partly a bit overlapping with the explanatory approaches described above is the so-called cognitive bias. The best example is the one connected with all the studies (Gardner (3), Kotter (4), McKinsey (5) etc.), saying for example that at least 50-70% of the big transformations fail, measured against their original goals. In a decision-making situation, managers may feel the expectation to make quick and uncomplicated decisions to push change projects; they may have the results of such studies as information, but deepening their knowledge, questioning familiar ways and taking the risk of thinking differently are not part of the career patterns – which is also a kind of knowledge. So, nobody believes that he or she might be in one of the 70% failure situation, everybody believes in success (even if never a similar project or program in the enterprise has been successful).

It is also interesting to explore the nature of cognitive bias - e.g. to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms my prejudices (confirmation bias). Or as a manager (with less technical skills) to overestimate my own ability to solve a problem. Perhaps paired with the illusion of influence and control?

Interestingly, a similar experience can be made in the risk identification or business continuity management exercises of organizations where the involved people mostly seem to run a very abstract conversation as nearly nobody can imagine that the identified risks or catastrophic events may really happen to the organization – which is the reason for the draft of weak mitigation measure as we again experience in the coronavirus pandemic.

The cognitive bias is one of the most important factors for an unsuccessful knowledge management in the system/the enterprise. It is an intellectual barrier with close connection to a general cultural barrier and so potentially partly overlapping with the topic 3 – but we have to differentiate between a general cognitive bias across industries and enterprises and enterprise-connected cultural barriers, even if the impacts seem to be the same.

5. Adults’ learning mechanisms – what are the basic preconditions for successful life-long learning on a personal base

Further explanatory approaches build on adult’s learning mechanisms. In contrast to children, adults have already gained experiences, acquired concepts, developed expectations, learned to set problem-oriented priorities, developed an image of themselves. Thus, there are some aspects that ease (or hinder) learning (6,7,8). Some typical learning pre-conditions of adults are:

  • Respect for my self-concept

  • Compatibility with my experience

  • Willingness to learn due to my ability and expectation

  • Purpose of learning esp. for solving my problems

We would also add the faculty of imagination and a certain level of abstract thinking. There is also a closer look to behavior models. Humans tend to observe and, if necessary, take over the behavior models of others if they seem useful and easy to adopt.

Such Criteria are:

  • Personal similarity to the model

  • Emotional relationship with the model

  • Successful problem solving by means of the model

  • Higher social status of the model

  • Possibility to exercise new behavior

A similar approach focuses the “cognitive ease” (2) in the transmission of information:

Fig. 2: Cognitive Ease: How to create the access to another individual’s perception?

A first conclusion from the explanatory approaches described

Coming from these findings, we can understand how fundamental, firmly rooted and partly unconscious the obstacles for real learning from lessons learned are - and why there is a widely spread aversion of taking any external advice, e.g. in setting checks by independent experts, even if they seem very focused and cost-efficient at first glance. It would be sign of strength to get another perspective by self-initiated efforts or by external intervention. But people prefer to stay in their individual, cultural and structural silos and comfort zones. And often, they are not able or willing to build up enough trust – in both cases. So, there is a lot to do.

To give the conclusion a new impulse, we would like to introduce at this point the Three-Pillar Model (or abbreviated 3-P-Model) which was developed and documented by an international community of professional experts based on practical experiences and documented in their recent book ‘Three Pillars of Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times - Navigating Your Company Successfully through the 21st Century Business World’, published at SpringerNature (9) (with the follow-up book ‘Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times - Design and Implementation of the 3-P-Model (10), work in progress, to be published early 2021).

The 3-P-Model offers three core principles that help to navigate an organization through the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). It focuses on how to get committed to a clear direction and belief, how to develop and connect the valuable resources which companies need to create impact and value. This includes going on the necessary journey – of an enterprise or a part of it, of a program or project etc. even without final clarifications which means experimenting, prototyping and piloting ideas and approaches to find step by step the right development path and come to the best possible results (even if we weren’t able to specify them from beginning).

The identified and carefully explored three main design principles for this type of modern organization and leadership turned out in a broad scale of cases to be very helpful for the analysis and understanding of organizational development and, in this context, especially to changing the mindset of a system and of people. They are described in detail in the box below.

A brief introduction to the 3-P-Model
Sustainable purpose: The people in the organization and the stakeholders in their ecosystem need to know what the organization stands for and which sustainable value it is creating. The purpose has to remain stable, reliable and inspirational to the employees and stakeholders. Key representatives of the organization have to live the purpose as role model. Or in other words: the purpose is giving clear and convincing orientation, inspiration and confidence for the joint endeavor, making the people proud to be part of it and contribute to it. It provides the people with a strong and binding core when structural boundaries open up.
Travelling organization: Business consistency, strategic stability and structural continuity, with change projects from time to time? This has long been an illusion in disruptive and crisis-ridden times. Now, we have to understand that organiza­tions continuously are on a journey, following their purpose, always exploring the best path between poles, alternatives and options. If the teams don’t know what to face around the next bend, they have to make smaller steps and explore the land. Even if they don’t know in advance what the best result will be they will achieve it, believing in their motivation and capabilities to manage the journey, relying in their agile mindset, self-reflection, readiness to embrace change and willingness to deliver. People in a travelling organization are curious, open, courageous and experimental, and they cope well with uncertainty, stress, unforeseen incidents.
Connecting resources: The organization has to be aware that impact, value and efficiency need connectivity between individuals, between people and organizations or institutions, between diverse global experts and influences, between different political and social systems and cultures etc. between ways of working and customer needs, between strategy and skills. This means managing connectivity, preventing unconnected structural silos, boxed competencies, focusing on multilateral incentives and behaviors. And there is one additional huge advantage: only with an intelligent and flexible connectivity is it possible to balance the (increasingly) different interests between its multiple key stakeholders. This is a systemic asset that is not to be underestimated.


Basing on these three mail design principles, the mentioned 3-P-Model was completed in detail, applied and concretized in several cases and holistically described with focus in or with reference to the business world in the first book. It is also striking, how well the model can also be applied in a large number of cases also in the public sector, including international institutions like UN, which is shown in the already mentioned next book to be published shortly.

So, summarized in a nutshell in the conclusion of the new book, the 3-P-Model can be beneficially applied:

  • on diverse levels, from a meta-level of understanding general coherencies to giving orientation to a method for concrete action, for retrospective analysis or to design and plan future developments etc.,

  • for organizations in the public and the private sector,

  • in a wide field of different industries and geographies,

  • in different development states of organizations (start-up to well established) and also in hybrid organizational situations,

  • for fundamental thoughts on leadership and management as well as for concrete design proposals.

So, using the described 3-P-Model, a pattern for a more conceptional interpretation of the five learning obstacle cases above might be taken from a 9-grid-box below whichanalyzes direction, structure and culture of a system paired with the three dimensions of the 3-P-Model purpose, journey thinking and connectivity.

Fig. 2: (Potential) Learning Obstacles: Example of an evaluation

You will find all the 5 analyzed learning obstacles above well embedded in the 9-grid-box (and even more):

  1. ‘Missing time for smart decisions in the VUCA world’ is for example connected with the attitude that urgency beats importance, operations beat strategy, work overload, blind actionism etc.

  2. ‘Future thinking – mission impossible in our evolutionary and social contexts’ is for example connected with the future as a risk anyway, risk aversity in general, fatalism, pessimism towards challenging endeavors in the future etc.

  3. ‘Cultural impact – the enterprise’s culture as a significant obstacle for sustainable learning’ is for example reflected especially in submission to orders and loyalty to superiors, a tactical behavior paired with the system’s culture and structure, in silo-oriented organizations and connected (reporting and HR) systems etc.

  4. ‘Cognitive bias – the impossibility to prevent systematic illusions in organizations’ is the key entry point for example of weak critical personal and intellectual self-reflection combined with a lack of a critical discussion culture and a ‘order and obedience system’ etc.

  5. ‘Adults’ learning mechanisms – what are the basic preconditions for successful life-long learning on a personal base’ are connected with lacking rewards for learning, knowledge used as power, few cross-silo activities, sacrifice of joint practices etc.

With regard to a discussion that will ultimately culminate in a board as shown in Fig. 3, it makes sense to involve experienced facilitators who are familiar with the topic at the strategic and operational level, but who are not part of the system but committed sparring partners. This is underlined by the fact that learning is a process that affects all people in the organization who are implicitly or explicitly involved and also participate with passion and ambition, for example the human resources and business development departments. External facilitators can therefore help to deal with different intentions, cognitive biases, the diversity of experiences, expectations and even conflicts of interest and bring in a neutral external view.


A Potential Journey: How to Sustainably Better Learn from Lessons Learned

The strength and stability of the learning obstacles described above demand a strong, well-composed, consistent and creative answer. We would prefer to choose a convincing occasion to start the debate. This could be the (annual, quarterly) Lessons Learned Session of an enterprise (on the project portfolio and large programs/ projects) or the (pre-)initiation/conceptualization phase of a large transformation (where lessons learned are crucial for scheduling the endeavor). The setting might be an official Lessons Learned Session, a Transformation Program Kick-off, a retrospective after a working phase, or an unofficial conversation with a group of managers. In any case, there should be a feeling of importance and urgency.

The first step in the chosen occasion, before going into content, might be to make the underlying context transparent at diverse levels and from different perspectives and to commit on the concrete framework and proceeding. So, from our experience, it is useful to create a common understanding about different levels of learning and to be always aware of the level that we have to address to achieve sustainable improvements in our learning behaviors, practices and processes (11, 12).

Levels of Learning
It might be often sufficient to be very critically self-reflected but keeping everything easiest possible, working with good energy along the well-experienced way and around any meta-levels. This means working at “level 1”: We try to place our perceptions and learnings in our well-developed individual map, with other words: put them into or into “thinking drawers” – which is the easiest way but may hinder mutual understanding (since humans have their individual, different thinking maps, cupboards and drawers). If we are aware of the limitation, respect the differences in our individual learning styles and decide that this is no issue in this concrete situation, this may be a possible individual procedure.
Level 2 is more energy and time consuming: We open our thinking and learning map to the unknown territory of other humans’ maps. Finally, we will expand, further develop and adapt our own maps to reach a certain conscious alignment. If we decide like this, we must be aware that the journey will not be simple, linear, that unforeseen things might happen, that we will face different perspectives not experienced to date, etc., but we fully accept. And we understand the journey as a mid-term endeavor.
Or finally, “level 3”: learning and reflecting on our way of developing and handling our inner maps, i.e. learning about our learning. This level is said to be the highest humans can realize. This is a long-term endeavor, we need a lot of energy, discipline, time and patience and the acceptance of high uncertainty about the final outcome in detail. In this case we become able to reach an alignment in the learning styles about our learning.


There are two challenges now: The one is to design more effective Lessons Learned Sessions. The other is more fundamental: How can learning in general be improved? Or concretized: What are the learning obstacles that we need to identify in order to make future Lessons Learned Sessions and their follow-ups more successful? We can name this a Lessons Learned Session, too, but must be aware that it addresses the meta-level of learning.

Therefore, it should be clarified whether a Lessons Learned Session is the right place for fundamental or meta questions about learning or perhaps only for a very focused discussion related to a specific initiative, project or process. The best choice of how to proceed will depend on the concrete challenge to be met, the number of failures in the past, the minimum outcome demanded, the remaining risk to be taken (if not all learning needs can be explored) and the initial situation of the enterprise. In each case, it is extremely helpful to clarify and agree the framing of the Lessons Learned Session and keep it present.

Starting with awareness and a transparent commitment on the framing

It is crucial to start the Lessons Learned process on a meta-level, introducing the fundamental questions and perspectives to be – potentially – regarded. Even if the final decision is to skip the meta-level questions this time, the context to be tackled in general was made aware for the future. One bundle of fundamental questions may refer to the learning obstacles (see above).

The first step is to explore the need for action and challenge:

  • Which lessons learned have been successfully implemented in the past; what were the reasons for success? – And vice versa?

  • What Lesson Learned Sessions have been successfully carried out in the past; what were the reasons for success? – And vice versa?

  • What are the relevant learning obstacles that we should list in our Lessons Learned Backlog?

How to organize the work on them? This step is to focus, prioritize and schedule the session:

  • Which of the learning obstacles will be tackled in the discussion & explorations and which not?

  • Which learning obstacles should get priority one or ranked high?

  • How deeply and intensely should they be analyzed?

  • To which extend do we need to collect experiences we made with these obstacles?

  • And finally: How much time and efforts do we want to spend on which obstacle?

The discussion will be a prototype of how effective the implementation of any action plan after the Lessons Learned Session will be. An effective discussion that is both open and careful would best base on questions and respective determinations like:

  • What are the true questions behind the learning obstacle?

  • How ready are we to intensively grapple with these questions?

  • How deeply do we need to dive in conflicts around the obstacle, hidden agendas, taboos, etc.?

  • What are possible answers?

  • What has prevented us from solutions to date – how to make a difference this time?

  • How does all this mean for the design of future Lessons Learned Sessions, preparing activities, the learning process as a whole?

In the following step, the participants start their work on the prioritized learning obstacles:

  • What are the true questions behind the learning obstacle?

  • How ready are we to intensively grapple with these questions?

  • How deeply do we need to dive in conflicts around the obstacle, hidden agendas, taboos, etc.?

  • What are possible answers?

  • What has prevented us from solutions to date – how to make a difference this time?

  • How does all this mean for the design of future Lessons Learned Sessions, preparing activities, the learning process as a whole?

We can make the needed decisions on the degree we want to take the learning obstacles developed above into considerations, using questions like:

  • How to proceed to co-create solutions and make it a success?

  • What does this mean as concrete activities: scope, actors, roles, collective practices, steps and timeline?

  • How to monitor the activities?

  • What items are open, and how to track them in our Lessons Learned Backlog?

  • How do we communicate the results of our session?

  • How to connect them with our general learning process?

Certainly there are other bundles of fundamental questions which could be introduced and discussed. But the selection of the right fundamental questions to be treated is in any case important to prevent that the lessons learned session is only an operational alibi-session with no sustainable impact.

Fig. 4: Potential learning journey with connected loops at two levels: Creating and implementing lessons learned and learning about the learning process which includes the lessons learned format

A recommended initial intervention to allow new perspectives

At the beginning of the lessons learned journey, a new perspective should be introduced which might offer a new and different view on recent results of programs and projects and the connected potential learnings. We propose to use the already introduced 3-Pillar-Model as an option for the new perspective.

Introducing the 3-P-Model in a lessons learned process means to create a new thinking perspective from a meta-level and outside the box. It directly generates questions about the transparency and acceptance of the purpose (of the project portfolio or a concrete program/project), the travelling mindset and capabilities and the ability to manage connectivity.

Applying the 3-P-Model thinking on the own case starts processes which open the perception and analytics of learning to something new but fascinating; details will be described below.

The 3-P-Model puts the first learning focus on the – stable and generalizable - HOW (how to communicate purpose and how not, how to best travel and how not, how to effectively connect and how not) rather than the mostly program/project specific and therefore not easily generalizable WHAT of project portfolios, programs and projects. Learning in order to know in advance the future WHAT (content-wise directions and targets etc.) of initiatives is very limited. But Lessons Learned about the process of organization and transformation, i.e. of HOW to design, start and run portfolios and programs/projects in a concrete setting, of HOW to approach unforeseeable problems and cope with uncertainty, of HOW to keep the balance between individual and organizational assets and needs, of HOW to co-create trust, of HOW to adapt to business needs and e.g., product life-cycles etc. is sustainable.

Of course, there are also other options to introduce new perspectives which can be taken (as the Setting Check concept (13) or the activity-centered organization development approach (14), as long as they are not only “toolboxes”. The 3-P-Model makes a difference because it is based upon many years professional experience and concentrates on pillars and questions that have to be worked with the companies’ specific needs, analyses and results.

The operational implementation of a Lessons Learned Session as good practice

The learning process including its various lessons learned practices has to be designed and committed across all organizational levels and areas. This includes purpose, goals and expected results, sponsorship, leadership, participation, roles & responsibilities, proceeding, events etc. The ambition and procedure have to be absolutely transparent. There are processes, meetings, situations and moments that give or take energy for this journey. Taking energy means failing the opportunity. Learning needs positive energy, cognitive inspiration, emotional momentum and respect to the people involved (see above). We have to take this into account when we design a process or meeting for lessons learned. They are role models of truth, openness, transparency, giving and taking feedback, taking responsibility, implement follow-up actions to communicate and ensure the implementation of lessons learned. Finally, take into regard: Situations are not only situations – they are always a magnifying glass on the organization as a whole.

In the following example, the overall situation of the company is first examined (Table 1). The general strategy and objectives are formulated: To make lessons learned a core element of the good practice in a learning organization. For this purpose, a comprehensive learning process is described in the management team, as well as the implementation up to retrospectives of the process.

Table 1: Creating a learning process based upon lessons learned practices

In the next step - from strategic to operational – key formats with agendas and scripts (Table 2) are described, tried out in practice and continuously developed further. Such scripts are used to document and share insights, experience and outcomes; so, they will become part of a living knowledge management system. Secondly, the mindfulness and professionalism required for the design of successful technical and social processes in workshop situations are promoted.

In both steps it makes sense to involve facilitators who are experienced in co-creating strategic learning and development processes as well as effective workshop designs at the operational level and who can fruitfully interlink both processes.

Exemplary Agenda of a Quarterly Lessons Learned Session

Table 2: Designing a lessons learned workshop

A lesson learned should show measurable progress or eliminate obvious shortcomings (e.g. in topics such as product/output, process or people). For example, if a project can deliver 20% more or more efficiently: What are the lessons learned to apply this to another project? And later: Has this resulted in progress in another project? If the lessons learned have a result themselves and lead to a new practical and demonstrable application, this promotes the motivation to learn something and the satisfaction of having contributed to a significant development.


Learnings from a concrete 3-P-Model application in form of a virtual journey walk-through

The application of the 3-P-Model has always to be tailor-made, so the evaluation questions have to be flexibly cut to the concrete setting. That means that they are on a quite general level, and it makes sense to concretize them when they are to be asked in a concrete organizational/program/project situation. The questions are structured according to different areas connecting with different phases of a journey. We are showing the high-level version, a more detailed version is available.


  • How far did you explore the VUCA world with your team?

  • Were you able to create a shared understanding?

  • Is there a real commitment to a sustainable purpose?

  • Is the transition process towards becoming a travelling organization sufficiently prepared?


  • To what extent are teams and individuals involved and convinced?

  • Could an agile mindset be developed? To what extent?

  • Are differences in opinion and working styles used as learning opportunities?

  • How is exchange on the route and impact of the endeavor organized?


  • Are all resources with each other effectively and efficiently connected?

  • To what extent is silo thinking overcome in favor of collaborative solution working?

  • Are the different working styles in your teams well connected?

  • What is the outcome of exploring various mindsets, experiences, expectations?


  • How is leadership as a servicing function realized and distributed?

  • To what degree is leadership practice connected to the purpose?

  • How is the communication about new policies and daily work organized?

  • Is there sufficient care for psychological safety from collective behavior?


  • To what extent are your portfolios, roadmaps, programs and projects aligned to the purpose?

  • Has an agile communication platforms & practices been set up?

  • To what extent are liberating interventions applied?

  • How is success evaluated and how are new practices calibrated?


  • Is your recruiting focus on people with curiosity, openness & agility?

  • Is there a climate of encouraging staff to take on roles & manage processes?

  • To what extent are feedback and learning procedures in place and working?

  • Is there a concept in place to evaluate success and calibrate development?

The working on such questions leads to an intensive discussion and to lessons learned along all phases of a travelling organization. So, it is a kind of concrete walk through the transformation (like in a movie). It ranges from the start phase to the continuation in a new quality of agile organization.

If the questions are asked regularly, we can see how the learning processes and the capabilities of the organization develop which they need in an uncertain and disruptive environment.

A company, its teams, and the people who conduct this kind of continuous evaluation are less prone to learning obstacles, cognitive biases, conflict postponing, and frustration due to lack of connectedness in the journey.


Conclusions and Final Remarks

The authors examined diverse dimensions of learning of individuals, teams and organizations also evaluating their many years of professional experience. The overall context is far more complex then normally assumed. To optimize learning therefore means

  • To reflect and evaluate the learning process, learning initiatives and learning impact in the organization

  • To intensively examine the impact of different learning patterns

  • To carefully check what the diverse learning obstacles mean for the own context and organization

  • To always explore and introduce new perspectives which can open up for new learning dimensions

  • To consistently clarify and decide the concrete framework for learning for both, the whole learning journey and each singe learning or Lessons Learned Session

  • To develop a culture of trust, of openness for challenging own comfort zone thinking, of being curious for new insights

As knowledge is the most valuable resource of the future, it is very reasonable to invest in its development.


Reader Feedback

J.S. (Ex-Vorstand Dax-Unternehmen):

"Die Paradoxien, die Sie beschreiben, sind in der Tat verblüffend. Alle wissen um den hohen Anteil gescheiterter Projekte. Alle stellen sich vor, die typischen Fehler zu vermeiden. Und meistens werden in der Tat genau die selben Fehler wiederholt. Persönlich hatte ich mir hier offen gestanden eine Art realistischen Fatalismus' angeeignet. Am Ende meiner aktiven Managerzeit wusste ich halt, dass alles komplexer ist als erwartet und man dem auch nur begrenzt entgegenwirken kann. Wir und die Projektmitarbeiter sind halt nicht lauter Tausendsassas, sondern fleißige Männer und Frauen mit ordentlichen Fähigkeiten und einer Fülle anderer Aufgaben, die man ihnen zwar ersparen möchte, aber nicht kann, weil immer neue Probleme an anderer Stelle aufkommen. Solche Verfahrensweisen sind ineffizient, aber einfach untrennbar mit unserer menschlichen Unvollkommenheit verbunden. Umso besser, dass Sie mit Ihrem Beitrag in erfreulich knapp gefasster Form, vor allem auf den kurzen Listen, die Kardinaltugenden und Werkzeuge wiederholen, deren Einsatz zumindest eine Schadensbegrenzung mit sich bringt."

D.E. (Chief Transformation Officer):

"Artikel finde ich sehr gut. Der Hauptknackpunkt warum die „Lessons Learned“ nicht zum gewünschten Erfolg führen ist für mich dass meist das „Anreizsystem“ versagt. Es gibt zuwenig Konsequenzen, im Guten wie Schlechten. Es „lohnt“ sich schlichtweg für die nicht intrinsisch motivierten Personen nicht auf die Lessons learned zurückzugreifen und die Learnings anzuwenden. Die Konsequenz ist, dass damit Fehler immer wieder gemacht werden und die Performance der Firma darunter leidet"

R.P. (Portfolio Manager bei einem internationalen Finanzdienstleister):

"... Meiner Meinung nach ist das Hauptproblem der Lessons Learned Sessions, dass es keinen unmittelbaren Handlungsbedarf oder Applikation gibt. Was typischerweise gut funktionieren kann sind “Retrospektives” in agilen Verfahren, wo man die Lessons learned im Hinblick auf den nächsten Sprint diskutiert (also mit klarer Applikation und man weiss, man spricht in 2-3 Wochen wieder darüber) und auch in den Kontext von Performance setzt (z.B. in dem das Team selber die Velocity über Zeit und damit den Fortschritt misst) - ebenso hilfreich ist die Rolle des Scrum Master der dies orchestriert. Eine Lesson learned sollte meiner Meinung nach einen messbaren Fortschritt zeigen oder offensichtliche Missstände beseitigen (z.B. in Themen Produkt/Output, Prozess oder People). Ein Beispiel ist wenn ein Projekt 20% mehr oder billiger liefern kann, was sind die Lessons learned um dies in einem anderen Projekt anzuwenden - und ich kann dann messen, ob ein Fortschritt in einem anderen Projekt erzielt wurde. Lessons learned ohne Fortschritt können sehr schnell allgemein werden oder sich auf People Dinge reduzieren (wenn nur People Dinge da sind, dann wäre ein Team Dynamics Workshop sowieso besser…). Die Lessons learned müssen also selber per se ein Resultat/Anwendung haben, sonst hat niemand die Motivation etwas zu lernen, weil man ja nicht weiss was dann damit konkret passiert"



(1) Pöppel, E.: Grenzen des Bewusstseins. Insel-Verlag, Berlin 1997

(2) Kahneman, D.: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin, München 2012

(3) Gardner: Managing Organizational Change. Retrieval: 2nd August 2020

(4) Kotter, J.P.: Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press, Watertown 2012

(5) McKinsey: Changing change management. Retrieval: 2nd August 2020

(6) Bandura, A.; Walters, R.H.: Social Learning and Personality Development. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York 1963

(7) Knowles, M.: The Adult Learner. Gulf Publishing, Houston 1973

(8) Hehn, S.; Cornelissen, N.I.; Braun: Kulturwandel in Organisationen. Springer, Berlin/Heidelberg 2016

(9) Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.: Kempf, M. (Ed.): Three Pillars of Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times - Navigating Your Company Successfully through the 21st Century Business World. Springer, Berlin/Heidelberg 2020

(10) Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.; Kempf, M.; Püringer, R. (Ed.): Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times - Design and Implementation of the 3-P- Model, to be published at Springer early 2021

(11) Tosey, P.: Bateson’s Levels of Learning: A Framework for Transformative Learning? Paper presented at: Human Resource Development Conference, Tilburg, 5/2006 Retrieval: 2nd August 2020

(12) Kühn, F.; Kempf, M.; Chamberlain, J.: The Concept of Purpose, Travelling, and Connectivity. In: Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.: Kempf, M. (Ed.): Three Pillars of Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times - Navigating Your Company Successfully through the 21st Century Business World. Springer, Berlin/Heidelberg 2020

(13) Dignen, B.; Wollmann, P. (Ed.): Leading International Projects – Diverse strategies for project success. Kogan Page, London/New York/New Dehli 2016

(14) Türke, R.E.: Governance - Systemic Foundation and Framework. Physica/ Springer, Heidelberg 2008


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