Lessons Learned and Lessons Not Learned from History

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Command or Control?: Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918 by Martin Samuels is one of the 7 books making up the “Maneuver Warfare Canon” as described by Bill Lind (here and here). Although written
about a specific period of military history, I believe that there is much that we can learn from it today.

There are two major points I drew from the conclusion of “Command or Control?”. They have to do with the challenge of trying to assimilate a competitor’s best practices into your own system and the challenges of recognizing and promoting learning throughout an organization. This note will cover the subject of Lessons Learned.

At the end of World War I both the British and the Germans set to documenting and analyzing their experiences in the war. The Germans transferred the Military History branch of the General Staff into the Ministry of the Interior (as a way around provisions in the Treaty of Versailles) and set them to work. They published their first analysis in 1919, just after the army was reconstituted, and distributed it throughout the army. This was rapidly followed by reports distributed in 1921 and 1922. These reports concluded that methods developed over the course of the war in assault squad tactics were correct and could be improved by more embedded firepower and transportation. This approach continued to be developed and became the Blitzkrieg of World War II. The German report used specific events as a means of focusing on what worked and what didn’t. That meant that it was, at times, critical of the officers in command and their decisions. They used this as a key means of learning.

The British group with the responsibility of analyzing the war was the Historical Section (Military) of the Committee of Imperial Defense. The decision to create a history was made in 1915, the reason being that the French military had published some unflattering comments on British performance in the war up to that time. The idea was to create two sets of documents; the first set was to be a “popular” history for release to the public that would be primarily aimed at creating a patriotic sense of pride in the country and its soldiers and the second set was to be a “detailed staff history” that would be kept secret for 40 years so that the French and Germans wouldn’t be able to learn from its conclusions.

Things began to go wrong almost from the start. The eminent historian chosen to write the popular history, Sir John Fortescue, was fired after the drafts of his first chapters were critical of both the military and politicians. The plans for a popular history were canceled. At the same time, the confidential version was also seen as being highly critical of both the senior military officers and government officials. It, too, was canceled.

But, in the meantime, many analysts and veterans were publishing their own stories, many of which didn’t portray the military in a positive light, so the idea for an official history was revised, with the goal of merging the ideas of the two previous histories. Denis Winter in his book, “Haig’s Command” refers to the result as “The public was to be given a ‘Popular’ history which was unreadable; the staff were to get a history propagandist to the point of uselessness.” The chief editor was told to release the volumes slowly and the team finished compiling all of the factual data by 1930. Beyond that their effort went into putting the right spin on the writing so that the volumes could be published. The first volume in the series was published in the early 1930s and the final volume in the history was published in 1949.

Despite the slow publications and the desire to avoid any perceptions of problems, the release of the documents nevertheless resulted in public pressure to create a true lessons learned. This led to the creation of a second team in 1932 to produce what became known as the Kirke Report. General Kirke and his 4 fellow officers were told to answer two primary
1) What lessons were learned from the war?
2) Are the lessons being used as the basis for training currently?

Kirke was only supposed to use the officially published records and they had only been completed up to the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Despite this, the Kirke Report was released as a limited, numbered document in late 1932. It was, almost unavoidably, critical of the army. It was not released more widely throughout the army because of the retirement of General Milne (a supporter) and his position being taken over by Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, who had been a chief of staff during the Battle of the Somme and was not pleased about the impact this report would have on his reputation.

A revised version of the Kirke Report was finally issued to Regular Army units in April 1934, only after a number of comments critical of the high command were removed. Worse yet, a War Office memo, at the time kept secret, said that it was to omit “any matter which might engender in the regimental officer a lack of confidence in the equipment with which the army is presently supplied.” [Kirke Report: Memorandum from C1 to AUS (12 January 1934)] This handling of the lessons of the war was all the more damaging when you realize in hindsight that this was a mere 5 years prior to the start of World War II and many of the lessons of the first war would be relearned.

Aside from a history lesson, what can we learn from this today? The conclusion I draw is that attempts to simplify history and ignore your past mistakes can have painful consequences. In business and organizations today we should also be willing to look at our past decisions on products, technology, business models, methods and processes, etc. and ask ourselves if they turned out to be the right decision or not regardless of the outcome. As an organization, what can we learn from our history, both good and bad?

We know that a Complex System is sensitive to starting conditions and we’ll never seen the same conditions twice, but it is possible to learn some things from our mistakes…but only if we acknowledge them.