Getting Real with Lessons Learned

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Categories: Lessons Learned

By now, if you have been following my blog posts, you know the importance of lessons learned. In past posts, I have provided many tips on how to conduct them, who should be involved and the types of project management tools to use for  evaluation in the sessions. 

But how do you get true value of lessons learned? To glean results that can really fuel change, focus your lessons learned on the following questions and actions:

What did not go so well? Do not finger point. Ensure the discussion is targeted toward the actions, not a person. Try to gather specifics. For example, if a delay caused a slip in the project timeline, discuss the lesson that caused the specific problem, and alternatives that might have avoided the delay. Perhaps there was a miscommunication that caused the delay. In that case, extract the lesson that led to that miscommunication. These are the lessons that you want to document and mark for corrective action. Actions or lessons that are not documented well cannot be translated into controllable elements.

What went well? Determine your successes, and then strategize what needs to be done so these actions can be repeated. Adopt processes around these successes that may not already exist in your system for managing projects. If it is a process that has been working well for a long time, integrate it with your new and existing policies and procedures but in a way that it remains intact and unchanged. You should also consider rewards and recognition events for successes. There are many ways to accomplish this, even when budgets are tight. For example, using social media by posting praises and kudos to employees online can go a long way.

What are we going to do to improve projects going forward? This is really the main objective of lessons learned. You can get together to understand what went wrong and what was right on your projects, but more importantly, you will want to leave the session with a direction on how to have future successes on a continuous basis. For this to happen, take the time to rank the learnings in some ordinal manner. For example, consider what needs to be addressed immediately and how to make the action possible; determine what can be changed and how to minimize the impacts; and explore how to ensure processes are apparent and possibly even mandatory. No matter what ranking system is used, conclude the meeting with an accountable action plan.

What do you see as next steps after getting together, gaining reality and gathering the lessons? Share your thoughts below, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.

Posted by Bernadine Douglas on: March 04, 2013 07:27 PM | Permalink


Stephen Duffield
Hi Bernadine, I have enjoyed reading your posts on lessons learned. I have recently delivered a paper on ‘a systemic lessons learned and captured knowledge (SLLCK) model for project organizations’. This research was focussed on exploring whether a SLLCK model can influence the dissemination and application of project management lessons learned between the project team and the organisation. The SLLCK model is based on the reverse relationships of the Reason Swiss cheese model where the variables of learning, culture, social, technology, process and infrastructure need to align and be effective to disseminate and apply lessons learned. The reverse relationship refers to the fact that the open holes in the variable layers represent the various facilitators in each of those areas that enable the dissemination and application of the identified lessons. The study suggests that by reconceptualising lessons learned, the SLLCK model can influence the dissemination and application of project management lessons learned. We established that the alignment of the people and system elements could positively influence the success of an organisation’s lessons learned processes. We also found that the people element and culture factor may well be the most likely to negatively influence lessons learned in organisations. Furthermore, the study also established that several variables of the model and their elements need to align to ensure organisational lessons are learned by means of projects. Many of the facilitators and barriers identified are not directly related to the project management and knowledge management operational processes; however they have significant consequences on how project knowledge is used within an organisation. One clear finding was the confirmation that lessons identification processes do exist and seems to work well and that the problem is with the dissemination and application of lessons learned. This causes individuals to believe the lessons learned process is working when in fact only the first part of the process (lessons identified - observed) is working. This separation of the lessons (identification) learned process is seldom discussed in the literature. I would encourage your blog readers to have a look at my pm lessons learned blog as I continue the PhD research journey on lessons learned. Regards, Stephen Duffield

Jim Miller
Ideally, you would like for the lessons to be used and applied to future projects. There is a major stumbling block that stands in the way of effectively applying lessons learned. Perhaps the biggest challenge with lessons learned lies in our inability, or perhaps our unwillingness, to see commonality between history and our current, seemingly unique, circumstances. We must overcome this impediment, and to do so, we need to adhere to three important principles: 1) insights must find you (not the other way around), 2) insights must clearly connect with our current challenge, and 3) application of these insights must be compelling in terms of their incentives—the value to be gained by applying or the cost to be incurred by ignoring them. This major obstacle stems from two well-known social psychology phenomenons, the fundamental attribution error and the closely related self-serving bias. The fundamental attribution error, in simple terms, is our tendency to attribute the success or failure of others to their personality characteristics while downplaying or ignoring situational factors. The closely related self-serving bias says that we similarly credit our own success to superior personal factors but that we view our own failures as the result of extenuating circumstances of the situation. In the world of project management and specifically in applying lessons learned from past projects, we are likely to discount or ignore a corporate database full of excuses for what we may believe was simply failed leadership. We may believe that if we had been running those projects we would have done things differently. Even if we can sympathize with the plight of the PM colleagues that have gone before us, our circumstances, customers, and teams are surely different those they faced. Furthermore, if we believed that the database contained valuable nuggets of information here and there, it would take too long to sift through the data and our time is better spent planning for the current undertaking. The hope of lessons learned, however, is not lost… There are three principles we can follow that can help make lesson learned more effective. First, we must present the PM with insights from previous work rather than direct him or her to search a repository. Seldom will the PM have enough time or motivation to conduct a thorough investigation. A better option is to conduct this search for him or her through manual or preferably automated means. The manual approach could leverage members of a PMO, who could use the PM’s new project charter to launch an investigation into pertinent lessons that could be applied to the new project. The PMO would be better suited from a knowledge management and historical perspective and would also be able to remain objective in their search. The PM if left alone might focus a search on what he or she might anticipate being problematic and might miss out on other valuable lessons. The PMO could provide similar support throughout the project’s lifecycle, conducting focused searches based on project progress and major milestone events. An automated way to present information to the PM might use the Project Charter and other project documentation to launch automated queries to the repository of lessons based on keywords. This could work much like the way that targeted advertisements are presented to users based on the content of e-mail. This leads us to the second principle. Insights must clearly connect with our current challenge. The lessons must be captured and documented in such a way that their characteristics and context are sufficiently detailed and indexed. When the PM is presented with information on lessons, the applicability must be easy to ascertain. Finally, the PM should be eager to apply lessons because of the compelling incentives. If applying the lessons could result in better use of resources or could save time, it should be stated as such. During the lesson capture process, careful attention should be taken to identify and quantify the impacts that initially occurred (positive or negative) and that could apply to future situations. Sporting analogies could certainly apply here: Last time we faced a 4th and one in this position of the field, against this opponent, they ran this defensive play, we ran this offensive play and we had this result. This kind of detailed data capturing allows for trend analysis that can inform future decisions. Most PMs and senior leaders believe that capturing lessons learned is important, but there is seldom if ever any forcing function that requires re-visiting those lessons and ensuring their application to new projects. We must guard against the tendencies to think that history does not apply to our current situation and that our personality and leadership are superior to our predecessors. We must present pertinent lessons to our PMs through manual or preferably automated means, we must make sure that lessons are characterized such that their applicability is clear and we must clearly communicate the incentives involved in applying them.

Shaun Wheeler
I provided a lessons learned report on a similar project that had been commissioned two years earlier and had lost £60 million, after having interviewed senior contractor personnel on the previous project. One of the issues that had contributed disproportionately to financial losses and delays on the previous project was the failure of process designers to involve structural engineers at an early stage, so this issue was high on our agenda for the new project. However, all the specifics added to the turnkey contract were removed by the lawyers so the project team were left with no contractual levers to force the issue.

Aleksey Kim
According to my experience, the biggest problem is not to create and document the lessons learned from project, but to share and use lessons learned for future projects. I posting lessons learned on the web site . And I give the link to colleagues, but under deadline pressure many project managers doesn’t read the lessons learned from previous projects. How do you get out of this situation?

Aleksey Kim

Bernadine Douglas
Hi Shaun, That is an extremely costly loss. It just doesn't seem possible that the lawyers would have had those specifics removed unless the gain is more important than the loss. I am glad to hear your lesson became an agenda item. It most likely raised some awareness and possibilities for future opportunities to be proactive because of some aspect of the lesson. Thanks for sharing. Bernadine

Bernadine Douglas
Hi Jim, You provide a long and thorough explanation of your thoughts on lessons learned. Thank you. Bernadine

Bernadine Douglas
Hi Stephen, I accessed your site and read about the SLLCK model. Your research is quite informative. I look forward to reading more on what you gather and present about the model. Please keep me posted, and thanks for sharing. Bernadine

Bernadine Douglas
Hi Aleksey, My apologies for the delay in responding. Anyway, having your lessons learned on a website for all to access is an important aspect of making them visible. Here are some other suggestions that may also be helpful in getting them to the next level of being used: - Have the lessons included as part of project information when a project manager takes on a project. Most project managers will review project information to get familiar with the project needs, history, any background information, and its goals and risks. If the information is available in this manner, it may allow the project manager to take that time to review, and it would most likely be a time when there is little pressure. - Does your group have meetings where all project managers get together? Maybe you could include the lessons as an agenda item where project managers will review the lessons, talk and share comments about them, and be able to absorb some of the specifics about the lessons. This would allow project managers to consider what other areas and information may impact their projects. It also allows an event for project managers to get together and share experiences. - Consider using an assistant role or some role similar where additional responsibilities may be added to this role. Have this person oversee the lessons learned website and be responsible for selecting lessons that would apply to projects being handed out. This person would not only select the lessons with the most match, but they would also follow up for any additional inquiries about the lessons, such as what were suggested next steps mentioned or other options that may have been tried, but weren't as successful. This would allow this project manager to have better directions to try for their project. These are all suggestions. You may have done one or more of these already. If so, please share that experience. Also, given the time frame from your comment to my response, is there anything else you done since collecting the lessons on the website? I would be interested in hearing about that. In any case, having the website is a good plan. Best of luck. Bernadine

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