Lessons Learned vs. Lessons Observed.

I was reading an interview with Gerald Parker, a leading pandemic expert who worked in the Bush administration on the nation’s pandemic strategy plan. It’s a fascinating interview in which Parker talks about the lengths that previous administrations went to prepare the country for a pandemic like this, and I found this exchange particularly striking:

We’ve had lessons observed over and over: SARS, the 2009 pandemic, Ebola, Zika, and so forth. I say “lessons observed” very purposefully. That’s different from “lessons learned.”

We’ve observed things, but we haven’t really turned them into lessons learned.

Yes, Parker’s saying, we’ve seen pandemics before, and yes, we know what happened. But in this case, we didn’t learn from them — because had we done so, we would have made changes to prevent something like this from happening again.

On a note far less serious note than pandemics: I’ve had countless conversations over the years that fit this exact phenomenon. Someone will tell me, “We know that we should do this, and we’ve seen others succeed by taking this step… but we just haven’t done it yet.” Even though they know it’s a best practice, or a necessary next step, they still haven’t been able to do so.

Now’s a good time for all of us to revisit the things we’ve observed. If there’s something you believe can help — or know will help — why haven’t you taken the step to actually learn the lesson and implement the changes you need?


That photo of an observation point comes via Unsplash and Matt LaVasseur.