Lessons Learned - Does the Past Really Matter?

Insights | 21 May 2016

Mention lessons learned to any project manager and you get a nod and affirmation: ‘yes, of course we log lessons’.  It seems that we know that we have to identify lessons, we even seem to record them, but then what? The Abyss?

Do your project lessons make it to a lessons log/register, but then never see the light of day again?  Or does someone months (or even years) later ask ‘didn’t we do something like this before?’ or perhaps ‘we tried that last time…’

Log Lessons, but then what?

Interestingly the Project Management Institute’s (PMI)® latest Role Delineation Study (RDS)1 found that the role of the project management professional has remained fairly consistent over the past few years, however specific areas of role evolution included additional focus on lessons learned for knowledge transfer.

Knowledge Transfer

It’s all very well that we log lessons but the essence of learning from experience is exactly that – to learn and hopefully not make the same mistakes as previously.  Why re-invent the wheel when we can apply prior learnings? Easier said than done of course.

Knowledge transfer is not synonymous with ‘dumping’ lessons into a spreadsheet or even database and letting people search it.  Knowledge transfer is about sharing experiences, skills and behaviours with others.

“Unless lessons provoke change, they are only lessons identified (not learned)”.


Top 7 tactics for making Lessons work

  1. Pre-project reviews.  Yes, have a workshop or review meeting in the early days of the project to actively gain insights and seek knowledge from other projects, the business and anyone with experiences in similar areas. Such reviews are, in the overall project perspective, a small ask in terms of cost and time given the potential learnings (good and bad) from others.
  2. Try agile practices. Think retrospectives, shortening feedback loops, inspect and adapt, and kaizen.  Retrospectives for example focus on looking back and reflecting how well we worked as a team.  The idea is to look at how ways of working can be improved going forward in the project.
  3. Tie to KPIs.   For example:  Agree that a KPI for project teams is not only to have a lessons log but be advocates in transferring knowledge behind lessons learned to other projects and areas. Let the team recommend how this can be tracked.    
  4. Share key lessons with the Business.  Share the top 3 learnings from the project that impact business as usual.  Sometimes we need to start small to get attention, but avoid overwhelming people with too many good or bad experiences.  Focus on the idea of continuous improvement.
  5. Top 3 lessons for all to see.    A simple idea that can be adopted where no centralised corporate-wide lessons repository is available is to have a basic spreadsheet available on a shared server of the top 3 lessons per project (even per area of business) and this is referenced at the start, key gates and end of the project.   We need to start somewhere.
  6. Community of Practices, PM Forums and Brown-Bag Sessions.  I know this depends on the size of your organisation, whether you have a PMO and overall levels of maturity, but even the less formal ‘lunch and learn’ or brown bag sessions can be a wealth of knowledge.  Ensure these sessions have some structure and at the end do a quick review of the session itself and decide next steps (for example hold another session next month…)
  7. Don’t try to implement every learning at once. Sometimes we can have too much of a good thing.  Consider areas of learning which may give your projects (and organisation) the greatest impact.  It’s not saying ignore any other learnings, but just don’t try everything at once.

 “As the sole purpose of projects is to provide products that deliver benefits to the organization, then the benefits performance is possibly the most valuable aspect from which to learn lessons.”

Directing a Project with PRINCE2, AXELOS

PMI® and PMP® are registered trade marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc

PRINCE2 is a registered trade mark of AXELOS Limited

1 The RDS is a research study for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential every 3 to 5 years to ensure the credential reflects contemporary practice and evolves to meet the current needs of the profession.

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