Lessons on Lessons: Why we haven’t learnt anything new for 68 years

Stabilisation Unit


This lessons brief is a summary of a workshop given by Dr. Robert Lamb in conjunction with the Stabilisation Unit. The workshop discussed how to identify recurrent systemic failures in lesson learning within fragile states and consider how they can best be addressed.

The presentation systematically reviewed ‘lessons’ research since 1949 and established that researchers have continues to repeat the same 15 lessons about overseas operations—yet have made little progress in addressing any of them. Dr. Lamb’s research attributes this failure in learning lessons to the lack of analysis into our own internal incentives to change. He therefore proposes that instead of fixating on asking the question ‘what lessons did we learn?’, we should instead ask ourselves ‘why didn’t we learn the lessons last time?’ Following Dr. Lamb’s presentation, a group of 25 of UK government (HMG) officials discussed the reasons why current lessons identification fails to prompt operational change.

Key Findings:

  • Lesson 1: Overly generic lessons with no context-specific practical solutions
  • Lesson 2: Poor timing of commissioning and dissemination
  • Lesson 3: Mechanisms for capturing lessons should be iterative and ongoing, not annual
  • Lesson 4: Incentives for learning are weak
  • Lesson 5: There is no high level realism about delivery


  • Stop writing generic transferable lessons. Lessons should be context and country specific. Lessons products should contain clear recommendations, which are practical and have activity owners for that particular context. Caveat: these types of lessons may take longer to produce and will require more specialist knowledge.
  • Use non-crisis opportunities to influence key decision makers about the important issues related to conflict and stability in specific countries. Time should be taken by HMG researchers to horizon scan for these issues and opportunities to influence. Consequently relationships should be built up with country offices and political private offices to ensure outputs are disseminated at opportune moments.
  • Lessons capture needs to be done during implementation of programmes to make it specific, relevant and actionable. Programme Managers should be formally tasked with maintaining their own lessons logs and they should be encouraged by Directors to task the analytical community with small and regular outputs. To support this, departments should provide Programme Managers with training in how to capture data and information to produce actionable lessons for programmes.
  • Departments need to change their approach to managing talent. At the programme level longer tours, greater accountability, and performance incentives related to capturing evidence and implementing change needs to be created by senior leaders. At the political level, challenging ministers should be actively rewarded rather than verbally endorsed.
  • Decision makers need to be clearly informed by policy and programme leads that value for money will not simply be achieved through curtailing programme support. Spending on monitoring and evaluation should not be undervalued in enabling long-term efficiency and should be invested in appropriately. Programmatic change will also not be achieved unless staffs are adequately trained, and programme management is recognised as a key and core skill within the diplomatic sections which increasingly prioritise programming.


Stabilisation Unit (2014). Lessons on Lessons: Why we haven’t learnt anything new for 68 years. London: Stabilisation Unit.