Exploring trends and developments in project management today

Lessons Learned: It's Déjà Vu All Over Again

Duncan Haughey

Businessman giving a presentation

Lessons learned are one of the most powerful and cost-effective project management tools available today. If you consider that many projects make the same mistakes time and again, you soon realise that lightning does strike twice, often more frequently.

It's important to carryout lessons learned in an organised and systematic way. It must be done properly. In lessons learned, we need to bring together experience from past projects and an implementation plan.

Don't just focus on failures, also look at successes. A reluctance to share lessons learned is often caused by fear of the "blame culture". It's difficult to admit mistakes, but it is important to do so for the future.

Lessons learned must be correct, so don't just accept them on face value, ask questions. Check what the person is saying, otherwise you will be doing things that are either wrong or not applicable.

Make lessons learned part of the normal project routine, including using them on your projects. Lessons learned are considered a best practice. Companies that do well use lessons learned.

Companies make important savings by removing redundant work and repetition of mistakes. Create a good process, where lessons learned are planned and implemented in projects. Understand what the benefit of each lesson is and avoid a tick box exercise.

Make lessons learned accessible to others in your organisation. Creating a website for storing and distributing of lessons learned can prove effective. Don't leave others to learn the same lessons you have, with all the cost and time implications of that attitude. Pass lessons on!

Running a Lessons Learned Session

Get the project team together at the start of a project and bring people in (including other PMs) to talk about lessons you can use on your project.

There are two key questions to ask:

  1. How will we use lessons learned on our project?
  2. How will we make our lessons learned available for others to use?

Always estimate how much time or money each lesson will save you. Unless it's significant, don't use it.

Using external facilitators to run lessons learned sessions can be beneficial as they can take an external view. It's difficult to run a session when you are close to the project.

Concentrate on the big, important lessons - the ones that will have a big impact on your project and future projects.

Common Reasons for not Using Lessons Learned

So why aren't lessons being learned?

  • Arrogance: We think we know all the answers.
  • Lack of experience: We don't know how to implement and use lessons learned.
  • Time: It takes too much time and effort to implement lessons learned.
  • Apathy: Can't be bothered to seek out lessons learned; it's easier to just start work.
  • Pride: We don't want to seek help from others because we feel it's a sign of weakness.

Senior management can help by insisting lessons learned are used in their departments, and by checking which lessons have been used. This ensures lessons learned are carried out and the team knows something about lessons from the past.

Relying on luck is not a viable project strategy; however, this is what we do when we ignore lessons learned.

Remember, collecting the lessons is just the start of the process; it's how you benefit from them that counts.

When approving a project, senior management should ask what we have learned in the past and how this will impact future projects. Before they agree the spend they must ask, "Can lessons learned save us money on these projects?"

What lessons learned have you applied on your projects and how much did you save?