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:
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.)
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.
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?