What value-added does lessons learned provide to project management?

Man's hand holding a pen and writing on a notebook
Lessons learned is part of the PRINCE2® method and is there to save time, energy, effort and the cost of making the same mistakes on another project.

For example, if you’ve been in a situation before with managing stakeholders and you know how to work with them it’s a useful lesson to pass on to the next project manager to enable quicker, better progress.

Carrol RoweHowever, across the project management industry lessons learned is not always done effectively.

This might be a lack of willingness to learn from mistakes encountered throughout project delivery or a fear of admitting and sharing the mistakes made along the way. Certainly, it could highlight areas where project managers didn’t adhere to an agreed approach; in a “blame culture”, organizations might not embrace the idea that people make mistakes and we learn as much from them as doing things right. If organizations did everything right there’d be no need for project managers!

Also, where a lessons learned report is compiled it can often go to the PMO and get filed away rather than using the information at the scoping stage of a subsequent project. With the turnover of new projects and programmes often happening quickly organizations can neglect making the time and resources to ensure lessons learned are collated at all.

Lessons Learned to look out for

What sort of lessons do we need to capture and build in to planning future projects? There are a number of common areas where lessons should be learned:

  1. Communications weaknesses
    Frankly, there’s never enough communications in either programmes or projects: that includes managing key stakeholder expectations, managing third-party suppliers, etc. Having more, better and different types of communication is vital – and that might mean getting people together in the same room, face-to-face, to resolve issues more effectively and develop a clearer understanding of the brief and desired outcomes.
  2. Management of risks and issues
    Is sitting around a desk with a risk form an appropriate way of managing risk? Risk and issues management needs proactivity and ownership, whereby people actually do something about them! Some people’s perception of managing risk is a tick-box activity rather than a necessity to mitigate project failure
  3. Obtaining the right resources to get the job done.
    Project managers need to be rounded people, which includes having a certification such as PRINCE2 along with the softer skills – such as people and time management – as well as experience.
  4. Clarity around roles and responsibilities
    For example, project managers need to understand what’s expected of them if the PMO takes over the running of the project/programme. There are different skill-sets at work and if a project manager is not adhering to PMO requirements it can affect the relationship.
  5. Management of benefits
    If benefits are not actively managed or tracked through a programme, the likely outcome is certainly a lesson for next time.

    What you need is a realistic scope at the beginning; establishing clearly what the benefits are and whether they are realistic and achievable? This benefits profile should be developed and tracked right through the whole of the programme and re-aligned if not unachievable.
  6. Knowing when and how to stop a failing project
    It’s about learning to have the confidence to document and demonstrate the signs that project failure is possible, for example if something such as a new IT system is not suitable for business needs. Other issues to look out for include stakeholder u-turns, benefits becoming unrealistic or a project end-date being continually extended when it should really become “business as usual”.

Also, you need to capture learnings such as describing future job roles too prescriptively; basing them too much on the picture today and not considering future changes, such as regulations, that might affect those job roles.

An agenda item

Do I think that lessons learned should be taken more seriously? Yes.

Organizations need to establish central management of lessons learned, where people can capture and search for specific aspects previous projects they can learn from.

And when scoping the next project or programme, lessons learned should be a standing agenda item, posing the questions: what happened before? What can we pinpoint to learn from?

To create a culture where people do this willingly, you need to frame it carefully: it’s about “what went well” and “what didn’t work so well”. It shouldn’t be couched as “what failed?” and should also be an opportunity to celebrate success.

Read Carrol Rowe's previous blog post for AXELOS, What skills make for a well-rounded project manager?.

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