We are all molded and guided by both our own and our mentors experiences. They provide a ready reference to us when we need to make a decision. The experience of others can be a short cut to gaining knowledge and maybe wisdom. As the German statesman Bismarck said, ‘Fools say they learn from their mistakes, I prefer to learn from the mistake of others’; and George Santayana counseled ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Therefore derived experience can be a great guide.
Provided, that is, it relates to the current situation. Lessons learned are very valuable as long as they do not lead us to ‘fight the last war’. Also there is a great danger that the lessons we draw from history are the incorrect ones. History is written by the victors and their viewpoint will color the analysis and flavor the conclusions.
Ask the question: ‘Who really won WWII?’ and you’d get different answers depending on who you asked, and also when you asked them. If the question was posed immediately after the end of the conflict then the British would say we did, and the American and Russian would say likewise. Ask in the fifties, at the height of the Cold War and Russian efforts would be downplayed. Ask now, sixty or more years later and you’ll get a more balanced view.
So knowing your opponents past experiences can help you decide how she might respond in a given situation. Also, if you make the situation resemble, in part, that which they have dealt with in the past then they can be fooled.
In commerce lessons learned are incorporated within a company’s business model. If your business model becomes outdated then you are in big trouble. Look at the consumer PC market: Initially the business model of Compaq and IBM was to use distribution channels – dealers and retailers – to put their products in front of the consumer via stores. This meant that they had to forecast the type and specifications of machines that the consumer would want. If they got it wrong then they had unsold machine and eventually obsolete stock.
Then along came Dell and Gateway and they started to build machines directly to a specific customer’s order. They didn’t have to build the machines to a forecast and therefore could adapt quickly to consumer needs and reduce uncompetitive and obsolete inventory. Now they still had to forecast the component parts, but that is a lot easier than forecasting finished goods.
Both Compaq and IBM tried to combat the market change created by the new business model, but their efforts never really worked. They became prisoners to their past experiences and cultural traditions.
Lessons learned, or conventional wisdom to give it another title, can also be a trap for an industry, as well as a company. In the 60’s and 70’s the conventional wisdom was that in order for a television manufacturer to succeed in Europe they need an extensive distributor base that would provide access to a comprehensive appliance repair organization. This view had been created as the industry tried to handle the quality problems that beset early valve based TV’s. The cost of building such a network was deemed to be an almost insurmountable barrier to market entry for new entrants into the business.
However, a combination of quality driven Japanese manufacturers and the replacement of valves by less fragile transistors destroyed the barrier in less than a decade. In fact the barrier to entry turned swiftly from an advantage to a major detriment as this network became a major financial millstone for the European manufacturers. In this case lessons learned mired the industry in a complacent mind set.
Your business model can be a strength, or a weakness, depending upon whether or not other people can respond to it.
In the realm of project management we have the lessons learned from running software development projects. If your cultural tradition is one of using the waterfall approach then your lessons learned will lead you to conclude that what is need are more detailed product requirements, the more detailed the better! Every analysis of both successful and unsuccessful projects will point to the need for better requirements documentation.
However other people have looked at the long list of failed projects and come to another conclusion. For them the problem was that the time taken to create detailed, but never quite accurate enough, requirements was time wasted in a fast changing environment. By the time you had hammered out detailed requirements, the market had changed; particularly in web development. So they resuscitated iterative development methods, of which Agile and Extreme Programming (XP) are the more famous, and deployed them as a more flexible alternative.
So, same issues, but different lessons learned, leading to diametrically opposed solutions.
Past experiences are not only critical in assessing the current situation; they also condition how we respond because they form the basis for our education and training. What we need to know is determined for us by our predecessors in our profession or trade. Old knowledge is either enhanced with new developments or it is discarded as being obsolete. No matter what field we work in our range of knowledge is constrained by the lessons our predecessors learned, or did not learn.
An example of where valuable lessons learned were prematurely ejected occurred in the air war over Vietnam. US Air Force doctrine had determined that dog fighting was a thing of the past. All a pilot had to do was aim his missiles at an opponent many miles away, fire, and then go home. So new pilots were not trained in the art of dog fighting, a skill that US pilots had excelled at in both WW2 and Korea. Well it didn’t work. The missiles were unreliable and the rules of engagement further negated their effectiveness. So the US had to re-learn the skills of dog fighting all over again.
Past experiences have a duality to their value; they can offer sage advice, or completely mislead you: Guide you or mire you.