During my last years of high school, I had a conversation with my older brother in which he told me that the career I decided to study would define how I saw everything in life. In a joking manner, I asked him how he saw me, already being a civil engineer. He responded, laughing, that he saw me as a steel rod that doesn’t bend at all. (In those last years of our second decade, we can be complicated and not very flexible). This conversation stayed with me. Maybe he doesn’t remember it anymore, but whenever someone presents a point of view, I remember they are seeing it through their own lens.
A simple example to understand this perspective would be coordinating a party. The accountant keeps an eye on the costs. At the same time, the lawyer thinks about any legal risks or liabilities that may arise. People with creative careers pay attention to other details, such as creating the atmosphere, decorating, and making people feel comfortable. As you know, the project manager wants to make it happen at a reasonable cost without any legal risk, be on time, look nice, and make people feel comfortable.
Over the years, I have learned this perspective is not a straitjacket and that many people can wear several lenses, which they have developed through experiences and different lessons in life. However, in most cases, my brother’s conclusions still hold true.
I am no exception. As an engineer and project manager, I can have a somewhat rigid lens. Those who know me know that I often mention that project management is not just a career but a lifestyle. In most cases, this is a positive thing. Still, I have found myself in situations outside the professional environment where expectations of how things should be done can lead to frustration. I have discussed this with other project managers and concluded that it is the syndrome of expecting everything to be worked on with a project structure. The project manager has a broad lens but with high expectations, which can sometimes lead to disappointment. Brené Brown, in her last publication, “Atlas in the Heart,” defines disappointment as “unmet expectations. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.
The first time I attended a Student-Led Conference for my eldest son, Pablo, I was pleasantly surprised. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is like a parent-teacher meeting, but the child shows you their work, does some exercises and tells you about what they have been learning during the semester. Among all the jobs, drawings, and other documents, there was a sheet that Pablo had filled out titled “Glows & Grows,” in which he had written down the things he had excelled at during the semester and the things he needed to improve on. “WOW,” I thought, “Pablo is doing a lessons learned exercise at the end of his semester.” As you can imagine, I did not mention “lessons learned” to anyone so they wouldn’t think Pablo’s mom was a bit crazy. Listening to his “grows,” he told me what he needed to work on and what we could support him. In our case, where our strengths are in math and science, the “grows” are mostly related to writing and reading, something that has not changed with my younger son’s “Glows & Grows,” who recently completed first grade.
After that session, I researched the internet and saw that many elementary school teachers incorporate this evaluation process. Sometimes the teacher completes it, and in other cases, the student completes it. Both methods are precious.
You may be wondering why I’m mentioning all of this. In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the lens through which we see lessons learned exercises. Often, we see them purely as a project exercise. The seventh edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) Guide tells us that “a lesson learned meeting is used to identify and share knowledge gained during a project, phase, or iteration with the goal of improving the project team’s performance. This meeting can address situations that could have been handled better in addition to good practices and situations that produced very favorable outcomes.”
The goal is to evaluate and improve, but sometimes instead of seeing these sessions as an opportunity to discuss how we did, what went well, and where we have room for improvement, we see them as a session where we talk about everything that went wrong. No matter how enjoyable and dynamic we try to make these sessions, many people need to view them in a better light. Sometimes we want to know where we can improve, but at the exact moment when a person gives us feedback, we don’t receive it with the best mindset. When lessons learned exercises include an evaluation from the public (for example, a conference or a party), we may even debate the feedback we receive. We say we want input, but do we really want it?
I invite us, me included, to be more like those elementary-level children who evaluate where they excelled and where they need to grow. Let’s not see lessons learned exercises only for projects. Let’s incorporate them into our lives. Let’s create the habit of making this process a part of ourselves.
In his book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” Adam Grant talks about Ron Berger, a teacher from Massachusetts who is recognized by his colleagues for the importance he gives to the ability to rethink things. He tells us that, in his experience, “mastering a craft is about constantly revising our thinking.” He also redefines the term quality as the process of continuously rethinking, reworking, and refining.
For children, it’s a simpler exercise because, at a young age, they know they don’t know everything, still have a lot to learn, and are eager for all that life has to offer. For us adults, it’s more complex; I think it’s because of our expectation of ourselves that we must have the answer to everything. In exercises of lessons learned, we criticize ourselves for things that could have been better. But that’s what continuous improvement is all about. It’s not about focusing on what we didn’t do but on how to do it better next time.
For my part, I took on the task of asking my brother again after 20 years how he saw me. Hoping to move away from the “steel rod” category, I was positively surprised by his response: “If we’re talking about rods, I no longer see you as that #12 rod that doesn’t flex, but as a #4 that is much more malleable, yet doesn’t lose its strength or essence.” I can’t guarantee what the optimal rod number is, but one thing I’m sure of is that I still have a lot to polish, learn, and grow.