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Mistakes Happened – But Did You Learn From Them?

By Denise Harrison, Executive Vice President and COO

Strategic Planning Expert

Recently I worked with a company that had several missteps in executing their strategy – what went wrong?  This team has an excellent execution record; however, even with a history of past successes the team stumbled.  It was time to take a deep dive to see what could be learned from the recent missteps so we could raise the batting average in future years.

Strategic Planning enables a senior management team to make better decisions – but even with a well thought out strategy things can go awry.  When things do not go as planned, it is important that you do not sweep the mistake under the rug, never to be discussed.  A process we call lessons learned is important to ensure that the team fully analyzes what happened and what can be done in the future to prevent future mistakes.

Lessons Learned: a Process

Analyzing lessons learned is not about assessing blame, but rather an in-depth analysis of how you can do better next time.  In addition to learning from what did not go as planned, it is important to understand what went right.  Here are two options for discussing lessons learned:

Option A

  • What did we do well?
  • What can we do better next time?
  • What would we do differently if we were to do this again?
  • What should we have in place to prevent this from happening again?

Option B

  • What did we do well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • How can we prevent this situation from occurring in the future?
  • How can we reduce our exposure?
  • What are the early warning signs that will allow us to take corrective action quickly?
  • What are our contingency plans?
  • What are our key take-aways?

Notice in both options we started with what went well.  Often in the aftermath of a mistake, project teams tend to focus on what went wrong, without realizing that a lot of things actually went well.  By analyzing what went well, people tend to be less defensive when it comes time to assess what did not go as planned.   This often allows for a more honest assessment of the issues.

In my example, the company did an excellent job of anticipating their customers’ future needs and developing breakthrough technology to meet these needs.  But what happened? Well, they were so excited about the solution; they discussed the projects with their customers. The problem was that the customers were so excited by the product concepts; they wanted the solutions right away.  And as a result, the products were introduced without proper testing and did not produce the desired results.  These results then gave the products a black eye in the marketplace.  How could they have prevented this from happening, and importantly, keep it from happening again?  What they learned was:

  • Keep the new product ideas confidential until they are ready for launch, or at-least, manage the customer’s expectations concerning the product launch
  • Develop a testing program – and stick to it.
  • Understand that after the test, there will be adjustments
  • After the adjustments, test again
  • Finally, when the product is ready – and only when it is ready, announce it to the marketplace

In short, the lesson learned by the company was to hold back on announcing new product ideas until they are further along in the development cycle.  

Each year, your team should reflect on the success of your objectives, as well as on any mistakes.  As you identify projects that did not go as planned, go through a lessons learned process so that your team will learn from both – what went right, and what could be done differently so that future projects don’t repeat the same mistakes.  Strategic planning is a journey, sometimes with some wrong turns, and sometimes with some dead-ends and/or detours. But if you learn as you go, you will have a higher success rate.

Denise Harrison is Executive Vice President and COO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at  harrison@cssp.com

© Copyright 2011 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.