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How to use ‘lessons learned’ to reduce project failure

How to use ‘lessons learned’ to reduce project failure

Ana BertacchiniAccording to the 2017 AXELOS PPM Benchmark study, nearly half of project managers who rarely or never conduct project reviews have experienced project failure in the past 12 months – this compares to only 34% of those who review either always or most of the time.

These findings give further weight to the argument that ‘lessons learned’ should be an integral part of project management. So why is it so often overlooked?

Overcoming barriers

Project Managers don’t ever want to fail. At the start of a project you have are emotionally invested in making it work – so the concept of failure is not even a consideration. Pressure from the business to show tangible outputs also adds to this drive to get it over the line – even if this means making shortcuts. With all of your energy focused on the end point, it is rare to acknowledge failure on any level – despite the business case telling you to do exactly that.

There is also a general lack of discipline in reviewing performance during or after completion of a project. Once a project has been delivered, the natural instinct is to move on and focus on the next challenge. So if the culture within an organization is all about celebrating success rather than taking a step back to consider how things might have been done better, this vital step will never happen.

When so much has been learned, it is a real shame when this knowledge just dies at the end of a project.

Embrace failure

Changing the mindset of an organization to one where employees are encouraged to share what they have learned during a project – the good and the bad – starts with an understanding of why it is important and the potential wider benefits.

First and foremost, it helps to promote employee engagement. Investing time to really listen shows a supportive leadership and facilitates a positive working environment – both of which can be a hugely positive force within an organization. In fact, handled correctly, it can be more effective and relatively less expensive than other more artificial means of team building.

By asking everyone to provide feedback and express opinions in a formal way, an organization can also create greater empathy between team members, where there is better understanding of each role and how they function together to get the job done.

On a practical level, “grabbing the bull by the horns” and providing a constructive forum for people to talk about their frustrations, means any issues are resolved quickly and potentially toxic gossip is redirected into a much more productive conversation.

Gain maximum value

It is vital, however, that organizations pay more than just lip service to the idea of capturing lessons learned – done badly, it will undermine any chance of successfully delivering any of the benefits.

This is when The Learn From Experience PRINCE2® Principle can provide a very useful best practice structure, if it’s followed correctly. If not, it will simply be seen as a corporate tickbox exercise. Led by the project manager, the lessons learned log should be used from the outset as a live document rather than left to revisit at the end when much of the information has been forgotten. Its true value is in sharing this knowledge among numerous project managers and, by making it visible, lessons learned becomes part of the team’s DNA.

Beyond this, project managers should:

  • Set the tone: if you don’t value the output from lessons learned, no-one else will. So it’s important to organize a session where everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Consider a mediator: you may have to pull yourself out of the driving seat and ask someone else to chair the meeting. Establishing ground rules will provide boundaries and create a neutral space in which to discuss the issues.
  • Focus on improvement: objectivity is key; this is not a forum for finger pointing or blame. The aim is to build trust in the management process and belief in the value of the outcomes.

A new mindset

Failure is not something to be feared. It shouldn’t be a taboo subject, rather one which is openly acknowledged as part of moving forward and empowering a team to develop new ways of thinking.

Many successful entrepreneurs have got to where they are now by learning from early mistakes. The trick is to analyze them and do it differently next time.

Put another way, in the words of playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For more information, see AXELOS' PPM Benchmark Study 2017.

Read more AXELOS Blog Posts by Ana Bertacchini

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Current rating: 4.3 (6 ratings)


21 Jul 2017 Public Anonymous User
Thanks Ana.
While I agree with your article, I'm regularly reminded how many businesses appear to be programmed to repeat simple mistakes, which leads me to think that in many cases we'll find organisational culture and vested interest at the core of the problem.
What is it about business (and government) that makes this so challenging? As you note, doing nothing does nothing to create a positve environment.
27 Jul 2017 Tim Pack
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Ana - a subject very close to my heart as well - thank you for the article .....

I once had a boss who said "we often identify what went wrong but we don't ever learn from it"

What we need to do is change our behaviour as a result of past mistakes and learn from it and as a result change the way we tackle the next similar project.

Hopefully we will then avoid making the same mistakes time and time again and the time spent identifying lessons will not prove to be wasted time and we can all benefit from doing things differently in future.

The problem with us humans is "Old habits die hard"!
9 Aug 2018 Stuart Giddens
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This is a really interesting piece, definitely demonstrating how the lessons learned experience is vital for all projects. The way I see it, if I can learn something, even in a negative situation, I can take that positive with me and carry that forward into future projects
23 Sep 2019 Nicola E
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Thank you for this blog containing so many important points. It's essential for all of us to learn from our mistakes and turn them into positives / continuous improvement.

We are looking to bring people together within our organisation to adopt this new culture and are organising face to face lessons learned workshops.

Blogs such as this are inspiring and help bring out creative thinking and new ideas.
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