Why It Is Difficult To Learn Lessons: Insights from Decision Theory and Cognitive Science
- Howard J. Duhon (Gibson Applied Tech & Engr LLC) | Janet S. Elias (Gibson Applied Technology and Engineering, LLC)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- SPE Projects, Facilities & Construction
- Publication Date
- September 2008
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 1 - 7
- 2008. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 5.1.2 Faults and Fracture Characterisation, 4.8 Facilities and Construction Project Management, 7.5.5 Communities of Practice, 7.3.3 Project Management, 7.6.1 Knowledge Management
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Though engineers and managers routinely express the desire to learn from previous project experience, we typically do not learn effectively from our projects. The failure to learn valid and valuable lessons from project experiences can be attributed to a number of cognitive and social factors.
Fortunately, a great deal of literature in the fields of decision theory and cognitive science is relevant to the subject. Unfortunately, much of this literature is unknown to most practicing engineers. This paper presents a structured method for identifying learning limits, an introduction to current thinking in areas of knowledge required to implement the method, a summary of the results of applying of the method, and suggestions for improving our ability to learn from project experiences.
In the 1950s, France fought a war in Vietnam. After a protracted struggle, France gave up and withdrew. A decade later, the US repeated the French experiment in the same country, producing the same results. Many parallels can be drawn between the French and American experiences in Vietnam.
- In each case, an apparently vastly superior force (France, US) waged war on an apparently hopelessly inferior opponent.
- Both the French and the Americans vastly underestimated the determination of the enemy. In both conflicts, the North Vietnamese proved to be much more motivated to succeed than the outsiders.
- Success for the North Vietnamese required simply that they survive until the enemy gave up. Given the situation, the North Vietnamese had a much more effective strategy than the foreign armies.
- Both the French and American public became increasingly hostile to the war effort as time progressed.
Similar assessments can be made with regard to the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan, the current war in Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta 2,400 years ago. Though each of these wars is different in significant ways, it is also clear that some lessons could have been learned from each but were not.
The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) by the Project Management Institute (PMI) (PMI 2004), now in its third edition, has been adopted as an American National Standard (ANSI/PMI 99-001-2004). PMBOK suggests that organizations should capture lessons learned as a discrete step at each stage of project execution. The phrase "lessons learned" appears 34 times in the book. Clearly, the authors recognize that effective learning is an important part of project management. However, it is interesting to note that the phrase "lessons learned" is not discussed anywhere in the book beyond a short description in the glossary. The other 33 entries are simple admonishments to do it. Compare this to "cost estimating," a conceptually simple subject to which an entire chapter is devoted. Since PMBOK clearly identifies learning lessons as an important task, but spends no effort describing how to do it, we must assume that the authors believe that learning in a project setting is obvious and easy.
We do not believe that learning is easy. It is our premise that learning valid lessons from projects is in fact quite difficult because of a number of social and cognitive factors. This paper attempts to comprehensively identify the most important limiting factors. It is only by addressing these root causes of our learning disability that we can expect to identify solutions.
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