[June 10, 2017] An older gentleman I met earlier this year asked me to look at a book of his dated 1944-1946. Upon opening it I was expecting to see journal entries about the war and occupation of Europe; those things that those men wrote who survived the crucible of combat, its exhilaration and its horror. What I saw instead was line upon line of notes that addressed “how to fight.” Inexplicably, after all these years he had kept a book of lessons learned.
This is what good leaders do to help make themselves (and people around them) better; they keep lists of those things that allowed them to remember the past so that they would succeed in the future. Each entry was a difficult lesson, earned from the blood of his comrades; the explanations he gave for each one was heart wrenching.
He told me that, at the time of his writings, it was crucial for his and his unit’s survival to first recognize mistakes they made, document them, and then share them with others. He was the note taker for his Infantry Company in the Third U.S. Army under General Patton. Sharing those lessons learned helped protect them from future mistakes of the same kind.
Lessons learned are those experiences, learned knowledge, and the understanding gained from practicing your professions are distilled into a simple format. Those lessons can be either positive or negative but always significant because it has some perceived impact on what is trying to be accomplished. They are often written to include a given situation, ways that worked or didn’t work, decisions both good and bad, and how to make it better the next time.
So important it is to capture lessons learned that some organizations actually have working groups that are specifically designed to capture information. The U.S. military, usually at the Flag officer level, have formal working groups to do just that. So does the United Nations and most large commercial companies in America. Keeping a list of lessons learned is a duty of all leaders, not just senior leaders.
Lessons learned, if captured correctly are particularly valuable for new leaders and newly formed teams. They also help us prevent complacency and overgeneralizations, which in themselves are habits that are hard to break. At a senior leader level, these are captured formally but we all have lessons we learn throughout life. The trick is to never forget them.
At first the older man was hesitant to share his book. Looking at it was like traveling back in time. All the studying I had done of World War II came flooding back to me but I learned more about that war in that morning with him than in all my classroom time studying military history.
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