Project Management

Maybe We Should Write That Spot Down

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For project managers, lessons learned are an essential part of our job – more so than for most professions.  Why?  Projects are unique.  Your project, by definition has never been done before, ever! 

Luckily, there may have been a similar project, perhaps in a different location, or using a slightly older technology, but like a snowflake – yours is different than the others before it.  However, just as in snowflakes, your project does have some structural similarities – it’s made from frozen water, and will have six points and/or sides.

From an excellent article1 on Project Management available for free at, there is this statement:

Most project managers know the importance of capturing lessons learned; it is good for the team, organization, existing and future projects. Lessons learned are the documented information that reflects both the positive and negative experiences of a project. They represent the organization’s commitment to project management excellence and the project manager’s opportunity to learn from the actual experiences of others.

The article also provides a visual that describes the process which seems straightforward but we can stand to be reminded of the steps:

So, we do use lessons learned to guide us, if we are wise.

An article from Sydney University, entitled “Why revisiting the Great Barrier Reef’s past could protect its future” recently caught my attention and brought to mind just how important lessons learned – and the archived history of the past - can be not only to project management but to science; in this case, the science of understanding the survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

University researchers are reimagining 500,000 years of evolution to conserve one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: the Great Barrier Reef.

This innovative approach creates an archive of environmental change from the distant past that is then linked to the present and provides invaluable intel for protecting the reef in the future. For example, carbon dating of ancient coral and algae extracted from reef cores helps to determine the historic life-and-death impact of climate change.

How can all of this historical data from the past affect the future?  It’s a baseline.  It’s informative on multiple levels.

The data generated are already having an enormous impact, nationally and globally. Australian governments and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority routinely use the information to determine optimal reef management. Associate Professor Webster’s team’s high-resolution mapping has provided more precise guidance on dividing up reef zones and his environmental thresholds data from the past can help determine how sensitive the reef is to sediment run-off and nutrient delivery from waterways that feed into it. This is a critical part of reef management as debates continue about land use in the reef’s hinterland by primary industries, including agriculture and mining.

But here’s the thing.  These scientists are having to use a wide variety of sophisticated tools in order to uncover the history.  As project managers we need only one tool: our brains and our motivation to record what has happened.  We need to remember to archive and make available to our project management community the wisdom of past projects.  We need to record – when the pain or pleasure is fresh – what went poorly, and we NEVER WANT TO EVER EVER DO AGAIN, and what went well, and thus we WANT TO REPEAT WHENEVER POSSIBLE.

This brings to mind a Far Side cartoon from the 80s – one of those classics drawn by Gary Larson.  In it, we see a couple of cavemen near a felled mammoth, in which one little arrow – in a particular soft spot of the animal, has brought it down.  Here it is:

 This spot would be a good one to remember for the future, don’t you think?  Even the cavemen know it.  One says, “maybe we should write that spot down”.  He’s “write”, you know!

In this image, we’re the cavemen.  These are ancient knowledge transfer agents, advancing information into wisdom for future use.  We need to be more like them – and less like the mammoth.

FINAL NOTE: Since this post – and the article to which it refers - to concerns Australia, I thought you may appreciate this video treatment of “What Every Australian Should Know About Climate Change”.

1Rowe, S. F. & Sikes, S. (2006). Lessons learned: taking it to the next level. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—North America, Seattle, WA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: November 24, 2019 05:25 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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The missing piece for me is "and remember to read back through your record of all the good and bad spots before you start (and while you're undertaking your next project".

I am trying to recall, is there a "review lessons learnt from previous projects" in PMBOK or any other project methodology or framework (I believe there is but can't recall). I'd assume it could be as early as the selection and/or proposal/business case.

Dear Richard
Interesting perspective on the topic
Thanks for sharing

PMBOK Guide's current approach differs from the previous edition's lessons learned

Personally I agree more with the knowledge management that is carried out throughout the project and which is registered in the company's SI and which can and should be used in other projects promoted or managed by the organization.

Ideally, stakeholders should record the tacit knowledge gained throughout the project.

Very interesting perspective and comparison, thank you

Great analogy....Thanks!

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