My team has a not-so-inside joke about me. Here's why they tease me: Whenever we get unexpected results, or friction with a client or vendor or in a new working environment, at the end of the day I ask them:
"What are we learning?"
I'm not the first person to notice that smart people still repeat mistakes ... often. Even smart people often fail to learn from experience.
If you want your organization to learn from all of its experiences, then I encourage you to adopt this simple question as a part of your regular dialogue.
You could ask it at the conclusion of every meeting, but I have found that people get numb to the exercise, so it produces a diminishing quality of responses. You could ask it by email, but I have found that I get short answers or no response at all.
How to Get the Best Results
So if you are going to adopt this question, here are a few guidelines:
When to ask: I like to ask just after the part of the conversation when people have let off steam. I don't have much stomach for general complaining, but some frustration is understandable when people are focusing on their own excitement, surprise or disappointment. My goal is to transfer the energy of the moment into behavioral reinforcement or change for the future.
How to ask: Usually, I start with a quick summary of the circumstances--what we expected, where we are now, and how we got to this point. Of course, because I am in the conversation, I have to try to check my own emotional energy at the door, which is not easy. But one of my old mentors told me, "Facts are our friends, even when they are unfriendly." I try to stick to the facts.
Who to ask: Each time, try to ask someone different to weigh in first. That's a good way to make certain that, over time, everyone gets heard. Many small teams have some very vocal members, while others are quiet. However, some of the best insights may come from the quiet members--and to get their ideas means asking them first.
Start positive: The group will want to hear what you have to say. Go last and start first with the productive and positive lessons first. The risk inherent in this question is that it can become another way to point out faults and flaws. That will not produce a culture that embraces learning.
Skip the blame: Similarly, keep in mind that "What are we learning?" is a very different question than "Whose fault is it?" You are looking for insights that will change behaviors and increase the potential for success in the future. To do that, focus on the facts and the process, not the people.
Even though my team teases me, I catch my employees using the same technique with vendors, clients, and each other. Learning organizations win.