Project Management

Increasing the Impact of Lessons Learned

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By Lenka Pincot

Project management affords a great opportunity for professional and personal learning with the identification of lessons learned as one of its standard practices. Discussing the lessons learned within the team or sharing them with other colleagues outside of the project is all about looking for ways to do things better next time. But what can be done to maximize the use of lessons learned?

There are numerous examples in which the ability to identify opportunities for improvement and put them into practice falls fully within a team’s autonomy. These may be, for instance, suggestions on how to prepare for a kick-off meeting, tips on how to onboard new team members faster or how to better engage project stakeholders. But there are also points that can’t be addressed within the project, because they are in the hands of teams outside of the direct project manager’s influence. The team may be challenged to stay motivated during the lessons learned session while they express doubts that any change will occur.  

I came across the aforementioned frustration when discussing the topic of lessons learned during one of our PMI chapter events. When I recalled my own experience and efforts to maximize the benefits of identifying lessons learned, I realized there are three focus areas:

  1. Adjust the frequency and format

Lessons learned sessions are no longer expected to happen only after the project is delivered. Learning is a continuous process and, as such, should be encouraged by frequent lessons learned gatherings. But it is also important to note that we learn when we need to learn—when it is useful. And when we need something, we take the path of least resistance to get the piece of knowledge we are looking for.

When we say lessons learned repository, we probably imagine an Excel file or database. Is there a way to make the content more visible and instantly accessible? To have it in front of our eyes and updated frequently so we have a rough idea of what information we can find there?

At present, I mostly work with teams using agile project management methods, for which lessons learned sessions are replaced by frequent retrospectives. We look back at a specific short time frame and are expected to agree on what experiments the team will try in order to achieve improvement. Outcomes of retrospectives are written on white boards, then placed either in a physical team space or a digital space (their interactive wiki pages.)

  1. Practice Kaizen principles

Kaizen comes from Japan and is a term that refers to good change, continuous improvement or change for better. Kaizen is based on a reflection of the team’s performance, addresses inefficiencies and is delivered in increments.

When you discuss the lessons learned, empower your team to make a difference by translating the areas of improvement into smaller steps that are within the team’s influence and can be delivered. Encourage them to execute these steps. As they are less complex and more achievable in short time frames, the team can experience benefits sooner and realize that the change is in their hands.

  1. Reach across the organization

Projects do not exist in a vacuum. The way they are delivered is highly influenced by the entire organizational setup. In order to change the determining environment, look for ways to use the power of project learning to influence the organizational environment. In my experience, it only works when you are able to identify the value that the change brings to the other parts of the organization.

In one of my assignments, I had often heard complaints about insufficient testing and training of users of a new information system that was the outcome of IT projects. The lesson learned was that users were not involved soon enough, the training materials did not meet expectations and that it should get more attention next time. We identified a solution that we applied to our project with positive outcomes. How could we prevent this situation from happening with the other projects that were coming down the line? What was needed was to make our approach an organizational standard so that other projects could benefit.

If you don’t have the mandate to make a change, use your influencing skills. Raise awareness of the topic, use success stories collected throughout your project to demonstrate that there is a way to solve the issue, make allies by delivering good work and network to spread the good news. When the decision-makers start to get curious, have your recommendations at the ready.

How do your project teams use lessons learned to grow?

Posted by Lenka Pincot on: June 03, 2020 09:28 AM | Permalink

Comments (22)

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Great piece Lenka. You touch on some very important points.

Good post Lenka !

Good considerations about lessons learned. It's important to have a good format of template to collect adequately the lessons of any member of the team. Lessons learned give us the experience of previous projects, which is invaluable.

@Rami Thanks for your comment. I wrote this post with fresh experience of chapter event and questions that our members based regarding Lessons learned. I’m happy to be able to share my recommendations also on this platform.

@Priya thanks :)

@Priya thanks :)

@Verónica You’re absolutely right, the way how we capture and later share lessons learned is very important. It may help to utilize the know how significantly.

Very interesting article., thanks for sharing

Very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

Hi Lenka, thank you to shed the light on this very important topic. I like organizing lessons learned along the way. The format of lessons learnt and the way to spread them in the organization are a challenge sometimes but this is very interesting. Stay safe, Yasmina

Hi Lenka,
they say that the only constant is change, so we must learn to adapt and improvise if we want our endeavors to succeed. Experimentation is key. retrospectives in an agile framework are a great way to rapidly prototype a new process changes and check results in a short time frame.
I think agreeing the metrics we use to confirm the success of the change can be the most difficult part. If it is story points completed or bugs raised (inverse) that might be straight forward. Like any Kiazen exercise it is important to define the experiment, measure & analyse to improve & control.

I'm just putting together a more traditional lessons learned process for install projects, where stakeholders can answer a questionnaire online and provide scores for the different projects, phases and elements within those phases with recommendations on what to start, stop or continue with. We hope that this will help identify the key issues and allow the review meetings to focus on those key issues & the corresponding suggestions to avoid the group think that can hamper lessons learned reviews.
were still figuring out how represent findings using the 1,3, 10 rule to make it clear to all in 10 seconds where the issues really are.

Lenka, wow lots of good take aways in your article! Thank you so much for sharing these tips!

This is Awesome Lenka, thanks for sharing this with us.

Great article Lenka, lots of relatable points here, thanks for sharing!

Great article, thank you! Your third point, at least from my experience, is the key. Far too often we create these vacuums/silos and thus, prevent the rest of the organization from being able to learn our lessons and the same for our projects, thus we continue a broken cycle each believing that the issue had never been encountered before. Communicate! In all directions! Thank you again for your great insight!

Great article

Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for the informative post.

Hi Lenka,
This is one of the best articles on lessons learned I have read till date. Indeed insightful. Thanks for sharing it.

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