Learn lessons from experiences bad and good

Janet Arrowood

“Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.” — Unknown

When you’ve finished writing a proposal, delivering a service or product or interacting with clients or customers, do you take time to consider the lessons you learned from those experiences?

Lessons learned (LL) offers an invaluable way to capture the essential details about an experience that went wrong, didn’t go as expected or went well. LLs, or debriefs, constitute an essential tool to grow your business as well provide valuable feedback to you, your staff and your customers. You learn from what went well and what didn’t go so well.

“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you. Don’t waste your pain. Use it to help others.” — Rick Warren

The last time you wrote a proposal or bid, did you request a debrief from the solicitation issuer? If you request feedback, is it only when you lose? What about when you win? Solicitation debriefs are an excellent form of LLs.

The simplest form of LLs is a three-question survey or request: “What did we do well? What could we have done better? How can we better position our company to meet your future needs?” Taking the time ask — and, hopefully, get answers to — these three questions will tell you a lot about your company and business approach. The responses will tell you lots about clients and customers and can form the basis for deciding whether you should bid or propose on any of their projects going forward. Not all potential or actual clients and customers are the sort with which want to continue working or seeking business.

What, exactly, are LLs? If you decide to go beyond the three-question request, the next step is a formal written document. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. To be useful to the broadest possible audience, your LLs should be concise, honest and compelling.

Of those three attributes, honesty could be the most important. That doesn’t mean pointing fingers or accusing others of sabotage or causing you problems. It does mean asking for whom you’re writing, what benefits you want the audience to gain and what you did well and not so well. Interviewing participants and holding their name, position and specific comments private is essential to getting the feedback and input needed to create a true set of LLs.

To be compelling, your LLs need to tell a simple, focused story. You need a summary, introduction, background and series of lessons. Each lesson should stick to a single topic and focus on the two to four sub-areas offering the greatest learning experience and documentation of what happened (or didn’t).

To remain concise, reduce redundancies and limit the LLs to 10 or fewer. For small projects, two or three LLs could be plenty. For larger projects, even those running into the billions of dollars, 10 or so LLs is plenty.

Lessons learned are created with greater frequency as industry and government entities encounter unexpected issues and employ less traditional forms of contracting. Taking a page from the big company and government playbook could offer an excellent way to avoid reinventing the wheel or repeating mistakes.

“Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is (what you get) when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.” — Pete Seeger

Think of your LLs as Pete Seeger’s fine print. A few hours spent at the end of a project — whether a rousing success, an abysmal failure or something in between — could become one of the most valuable tools in your business toolbox.