Event: 1st June 2015, Brussels


As part of the European Commission’s Learning week, Dr Kass delivered a lecture on the subject of “Learning from mistakes”, followed by a workshop. The events were well attended – indeed, the presentation was oversubscribed!

Workshop team

Workshop team: Frans Nijs, James Kass, Olga Muravjova

This plenary lecture and workshop were part of a week-long training week with scores of parallel sessions, to which all staff from the European Commission and its sister institutions, such as the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union were invited.

The objective of the plenary presentation and the interactive workshop was to create awareness of the importance of learning lessons, how to glean, structure and streamline the important learnings, facilitate sharing such learnings usefully with others, and encourage transparency and collaboration across the organization.

Plenary presentation

The presentation was very well attended, chairs having to be brought in from other rooms to accommodate the overflow of visitors.

Dr Kass first spoke about the importance of sharing and investigating mistakes made – and successes, and understanding why the failures (or successes) occurred, and what recommendations and learnings can be drawn from them.

Lessons not learned

The core of the message was that “mistakes should only be made once – the second time it is no longer a mistake, it is a choice”, and that “the mistakes of history repeat themselves because no one was listening and taking note the first time”.

Kass gave some examples from his long experience in the domain of spaceflight, but also examples from recent history and history long past. “We not only must learn from our own mistakes, but from the mistakes of others, whether of our colleagues, or past mistakes from other organizations and indeed mistakes long past in the annals of history”, said Kass.

But although these admonitions, in principle, are agreed by most, putting them into practice is altogether another thing – the road to implementation is strewn with obstacles and barriers! Analysing these hindrances and how to overcome them was the subject of the follow-up workshop.

Interactive workshop

Workshop process

The participants were first debriefed on a number of critical and challenging potential problems normally encountered, and annoying and sensitive barriers to be overcome when trying to introduce into an organization a culture and system for sharing lessons learned. A set of challenging questions was addressed to the participants, who then broke up into thematic groups to discuss, deliberate and find solutions and answers to these questions.

A set of challenges were addressed to the participants, divided into the following broad themes:

  • Challenge-1: Culture Change

How to facilitate/ encourage culture change towards: There is always a challenge of exposing embarrassing failures or hiding tricks of successes

  • Challenge-2: Awareness

How to increase awareness of Lessons Learned? What vehicles, methods, and media should be employed, and how?

  • Challenge-3: Process

Some processes will be necessary, otherwise we shall find ourselves in a chaotic well of information, of which we already suffer from oversupply; on the other hand too much bureaucracy can be deadly and kill the venture from the start.

  • Challenge-4: Sources of Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned can and should come from many sources, providing also different approaches and examples of earlier and potentially useful experiences – how can we best facilitate and implement this?

  • Challenge-5: Transparency / Privacy / Confidentiality

Teams at work

The challenges of compromising personal privacy could become a barrier to sharing information. How to protect privacy, but yet share the information as widely and usefully as possible? What are the practical compromises that must be made to protect privacy and the consequences of its breach, while still encouraging healthy transparency and openness?

The teams then summarized their findings by sharing what they identified as key challenges, the opportunities to overcome barriers and what actions should follow.

The two-hour session flew by very quickly, but nevertheless allowed for lively and useful discussion with concrete and tangible results. There was a general feeling that this workshop was just a beginning and the first step towards other steps that should follow up in order to realize the goals set out by this event.