One of the recommendations always made at the end of every project is to apply the lessons learned from the just-completed project to subsequent projects; learn from the mistakes made and try not to repeat them and, less often, learn from the successes and do try to repeat those.
The project plan probably has a task on it to do just this and has time and resources allocated. But in reality, how often do project managers actually do this – actually learn from past mistakes to increase the chances of success in the future?
The opportunity is there, and formal project management procedures recommend it, but very few people stick to this part of the plan. Now there are times when breaking some of the formal project management rules can be a good thing, but this is not one of those times. It is difficult to understand why this is so often the case because transferring all that information about what was done badly (and what was done well) from one project to the next could, over time, reap huge rewards.
Incorporating a thorough Lessons Learned review at the end of each project is the way to improve an individual project manager’s performance and also the overall success rate of projects within an organisation.
So how can Lessons Learned be effectively recorded and then be applied to subsequent projects?
Well, there are many processes available to use in an end-of-project review and also templates that can be used throughout the project in order to record issues when they are still fresh in the mind. So a shortage of suitable tools is not preventing the lessons learned from being recorded. Rather, what seems to be the case is that little, or no, priority is given to documenting failure, even when the advantage of doing so is to avoid similar situations in the future.
This could genuinely be for the reason most often given, which is a lack of time. However, this really is a feeble excuse akin to saying a house was built with shallow foundations because there was no time to build them deeper. The resulting house is ultimately far more likely to have problems because the time was not taken to build strong foundations and no project manager would recommend this as an option. Similarly the overall success of all projects in an organisation is at risk if lessons are not learnt from past mistakes. Very few, if any, projects exist in isolation where what happened before and what will come after are irrelevant.
Could this reluctance to document “lessons learned” be a subconscious way to avoid admitting to the mistakes? Particularly in an organisation where a blame culture still exists.
So whether the reasons are a lack of time, lack of resources or a reluctance to accept blame, there are ways that a project manager can encourage, and be encouraged, to learn lessons from previous projects and record issues for the benefit of future projects. One way is to ensure the project team share their experience and knowledge at the start of the project so that suggestions for avoiding mistakes may be taken into account in the planning stage. Another is to record mistakes when they actually occur and when the causes can still be recalled easily, rather than leaving this until the project has almost finished.
Learning Lessons from Past Mistakes
Initiate frank and open conversations in which the project team are able to discuss past failures in a constructive way. Make it very clear that these issues are being aired in order to learn something from them and not to apportion blame. At the same time encourage discussion of tasks or projects completed successfully to reinforce the positive purpose of the meetings and foster a learning culture in place of a blame culture.
By including these knowledge-sharing discussions on the project plan, their importance will be emphasised but also they will contribute to progress on the project schedule.
Capturing Lessons Learned to Avoid Future Mistakes
Develop a suitable project log and associated process right at the beginning of every project to record any mistakes which could be avoided in future projects (and also any notable successes). Do not be tempted to leave this process until the end of the project when memories have faded and the inclination to complete the process has been lost. This will simply lead to a rushed exercise that benefits no one. Such a log should document issues that have arisen, possible causes of the problems, how they were resolved and key decisions that were taken at the time.
Project logs used in this way effectively become the starting point for a “lessons learned” document at the end of the project, making the process simpler and quicker to complete, and the document itself more useful.
So instead of making excuses for not completing the “lessons learned” process, use it to encourage learning rather than allocate blame and see it as an opportunity to improve the outcome of your next project. It is an approach supported by major project management methodologies such as PMP, PRINCE2 and APMP and will ultimately lead to more successful projects across your organisation.