The term ‘learning lessons’ appears frequently in news items at the moment as governments around the world seek to demonstrate that they are going to prepare better for future pandemics, but what does the term actually mean?

Professor Reg Revans said, “There is no learning without action and no action without learning.” If he’s right (and I think he is), then the learning isn’t complete until action has been taken and perhaps this is why we are so suspicious of the term: because so often the action arising out learning lessons  is weak or absent.

A moving story

Have you ever deliberately slowed down your reading of a book because it is so good, you want to make it last longer?  Despite doing so, this week I finished one such book, the autobiography by Alison Mowbray called Gold Medal Flapjack. For me, the enjoyment of the book came from my interest in the sport of rowing, the up close and personal account of phenomenal skill and determination, by a non-sporty child, to qualify for two Olympics, and the quality of the storytelling. Yet the standout takeaway from the book for me is something quite different.

As Alison tells her story, what emerges is a remarkable account of learning lessons which has taken place over her lifetime but, more importantly, the actions she has taken to apply the lessons to each new situation.

Learning lessons, taking action

For example, when she started playing the French Horn at school, the music teacher told her, “You have to be brave for this” and she found out that “If you don’t go for it 100% you won’t get it anyway, so you just have to go for it”.  Alison goes on to say, “A lot of what I learnt about life, I learnt from playing the French Horn”, and so much of her journey to the Olympics demonstrates this lesson being applied.

Another lesson of particular value, (and not just for athletes) came when she went to the Commonwealth Games qualifiers. Arriving a little late and unprepared, she got to the start line in her single scull without being sure of the length of the course. She knew it wasn’t 2,000m, so assumed it was 1500m. As she was rowing past the 1250m mark and upped her stroke rate to put all her effort into getting to the finish line “lungs and legs screaming”, she realised that the race was actually 1750m long. She found that she had a miracle “reserve tank” that enabled her to push through to a convincing win at 1750m. The lesson here, applied by her in many situations thereafter, was that “you always have more in you than you think you are capable of”.

Reality check

How many individuals do we know who have  converted experience into learning and then applied it so systematically? I am guessing that we can name very few. And, if we are honest with ourselves, our own name is not on the list. Whilst we have all done our fair share of learning lessons, few of us have identified the most valuable of them and diligently and consistently taken action to improve our own life and work as Alison has done.

We could debate long and hard about why this is the case, but my point here is that we expect it of the people we work with, and we expect it of the organisations we work for and the governments we vote for, yet it is incredibly hard to actually do. If it was easy, our colleagues and our organisations would not make the same mistakes over and over again, and we would be able to trust that improvements would happen as a matter of course.

Learning lessons is a skill

First identifying the learning from an experience and then applying it to future behaviour and decisions, is a skill which Alison taught herself. It is also something we teach organisations to do using the After Action Review (AAR) approach.

For example, one of our clients is putting to good use the experiences of the pandemic as they transition to a new way of working, running several internal AARs to identify the learning from working from home and using this as the basis for new post-pandemic working practices. Another has been identifying lessons from a product recall through the AARs we facilitate for them so they can harness these in the writing of formal guidance for future recalls.

As Peter Senge said, “The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.”

Please drop us a line and let us help you with learning lessons, so you can succeed as Alison has.