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Will You Apply Those Lessons Learned?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
July 28, 2021

Every partner, in every organization I have ever worked with, has the best intentions of incorporating lessons learned from this event into future events. This event can be anything, but of course, COVID-19 is on my mind, and probably yours too. Have you captured your lessons and already worked them into plans and procedures?

If so, congratulations! You are rare. Most have not and many, far too many, will never do so at all. This column explores some of the reasons that lessons learned do not get put into action. Perhaps by articulating the excuses, we can recognize that they are just obstacles, step right past them and get the job done.

“Our leadership doesn’t think they made any mistakes.” I listed the hardest one first. This comes from an organizational culture set by leadership that admits no senior leader errors. This is tough, but public administrators can still work around this challenge perhaps by making the lessons learned process less formal, and less visible. It is generally ineffective, and perhaps career-limiting, to just point the finger upward and complain—better to collaborate among planning partners in the organization and quietly incorporate some lessons learned.

“The [executive] keeps saying it went perfectly.” This is when the narrative out of the Governor’s or Mayor’s or Chief Executive’s office is that everything was flawless (to avoid political harm). The people who suffered through the lessons know otherwise, but they cannot fight the narrative. Again, perhaps an informal process can be pursued.

“We truly had a high level of performance—it went well—we don’t want to say otherwise.” The internal narrative of the organization is one of success and it can be hard to be the lone voice saying that there are improvements to be made. The nature of the public service mission calls us to do so though. We can approach the process as capturing what went well and sneak in a few improvements.

“Opening ourselves up is too risky.” This reflects a senior leadership team that would rather avoid addressing risk. Some public administrators might counteract this by building the case that the risk of denial is higher than the risk brought about by identifying a known challenge, attacking that challenge and defeating it. Ignoring risk links to negligence, after all.

“We don’t need to capture lessons learned because ours will be part of another’s effort.” This one is tough because part of an organization, or perhaps even the whole organization, becomes dependent on another organization to do the “lessons learned” work. That other component or organization faces these listed challenges and odds are working through them will never happen. Make sure your organization controls its destiny.

“These sorts of things only lead to finger-pointing and conflict.” When handled poorly or when done in tough organizational climates with blame-shifting and harsh penalties for error, there can be conflict. But when handled well and approached with objectivity and a focus on incorporating a lesson and not assigning blame—conflict can be reduced.

“It’s not the right time.” It never is the right time. If done too early the last recovery and reconstitution lessons might not be included. If done too late, then the spotlight of attention will have moved on and motivation will be low. Best to begin the lessons learned process when people first start being able to take deep breaths and recover from the initial event. Then allow for a process to continue capturing lessons until near the end of the event.

“No two events are the same.” The idea that lessons from this event will not apply to another is just an excuse to avoid doing the work. An emergency operations center (EOC) activation for COVID-19 will certainly have some lessons applicable to an EOC activation for a flood.

“We don’t have the resources to manage it.” This can be honest, but it is still just an excuse. Reduce the formality, find someone to partner with or employ a contractor. Just get the job done.

“We have never done anything like that.” This might link to culture and changing culture is hard. The best approach might be to take small steps. The first time perhaps an informal process is appropriate.

“We used to do those but no one would actually make the improvements we identified.” This is when an organization does capture lessons learned but never holds anyone accountable for the outcomes. The document finds its way into a drawer and is never touched again. One technique to address this is to have the topic on a senior leader meeting agenda be raised and questioned now and then.

This was a long list of potential obstacles to capturing lessons learned and making improvements. I hope that by listing these weak excuses, we can all step past them. Are there excuses I missed? Do you disagree with me in any way? Comment or send me a note.


Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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