What are Lessons Learned?

Lessons Learned is the learning gained from the process of performing the project. Capturing information in Lessons Learned logs enables Project Managers to learn from themselves, as well as others. Lessons Learned can only be successful, however, if the reports are reviewed and decisions are made on how to use the knowledge gained.

The below information comes from a Wellingtone PMO Practitioner Community event that took place recently focused on the topic of Lessons Learned. And although many feel that this particular subject has been flogged many times, we were joined by over 50 people that generated some fascinating discussion.

We wanted to uncover why as an industry we still haven’t nailed this particular aspect, one that is widely considered invaluable in modern project and portfolio management methods.  

We began the conversation by finding out whether organisations ‘do’ lessons learned, and we looked at it from two perspectives represented in this graph: 

Do Lessons Learned Work in Organisations

Why are lessons learned and knowledge management so difficult?

Well (maybe not so) shockingly, time is the biggest killer of organisational learning, followed closely by a lack of resources, and these activities not being considered a priority. Also, we noted that many teams have a point in their methodology but little (or no) actual process attached to facilitate lessons learned and beyond.

Together with the age-old question of who is supposed to do what when it comes to this kind of work; PMO, project teams, sponsors, L&D, it is easy to see why it can get so foggy that teams can’t see a way through.

Years ago, I read a book that talked about the dangers of not levering the tacit knowledge that exists in all Businesses. Knowledge exists in all of us, from our experience with the organisation or directly with the subject matter. Either way, when we don’t utilise this tacit knowledge to improve, we instead find that organisations remain behind the curve of the industry (and often their competitors).

Tacit knowledge is hard to get to because people hold it – in their heads. It isn’t written down; it isn’t in a process flow. And its intangible nature can make people very protective of their tacit knowledge because they feel it makes them indispensable. I have believed for years that this is actually the root cause of many of our issues with Lessons Learned, and thanks to this event we can see a representation of this in our next community question results:

Why is Lessons Learned so difficult to embed in an organisation?

For the first time in a long time, we see two or three key points in this word cloud that follows on from our understanding of tacit knowledge:

  • Fear of Blame: people are inherently afraid that identifying lessons can lead back to themselves having missed something important, this can knock people’s confidence, especially as lessons are typically (although not always) relating to a negative experience.
  • Knowledge Sharing: or lack thereof. It turns out that many people don’t want to share their knowledge. I had an interesting conversation with someone recently who said that now they had retired they were comfortable sharing their knowledge because there is no chance of their role being affected.
  • Ego: we often forget that all of us have a tiny voice in our head asking if we are sure that our next action is safe, as well as reminding us that we are awesome and therefore the best, so there is no point sharing our knowledge because others simply won’t get it, or action it properly.

So what?

The point here is that even if we manage to fix all the processes and logistics that enable best practice lessons learned and knowledge management, it still might not help. The human condition will still create barriers to stop true organisational learning.

Tips to do Lessons Learned more effectively in your organisation

With that in mind, we asked the community what has worked for them and we got some interesting results and ideas that can help guide PMOs to improve lessons learned and wider knowledge management capability:

  • Use some of the techniques showcased in Agile projects like retrospectives. Utilising ways of working that incorporate more agility regularly will ensure that there is an ongoing continuous discussion within the PPM community around knowledge, opportunities, and improvements and start to develop a culture of learning.
  • Identify some common themes to easier create a case for change when appropriate. Developing a way to identify trends across projects such as one centralised repository will ensure that when opportunities or challenges are identified, data can support action plans as opposed to opinion or a ‘gut feeling’.
  • Develop a PMO Service Catalogue which includes learning and knowledge management at its heart. Publishing a catalogue avoids any confusion around who is supposed to do what, and make it clear how the PMO supports organisational learning.
  • As always, this kind of process needs buy-in from senior stakeholders from across the organisation. One of our Wellingtone PMO Principles is Supporting a Learning Organisation, and to achieve this we need to choose and commit to the right approach for our PMO.
  • Many believe that the lessons learned process (like risk management) is inherently negative in its nature. Achieving a culture of learning means being comfortable with the failures, assessing our lessons, creating positive change, and seeing that change as beneficial for the organisation.
  • Share templates/good examples of best practice and when we have been successful. As PMOs, we tend to focus on the negative, so ensure you have a plan in place to shout about the positive changes made from lessons, and if we can, communicate wider than your immediate PPM community.
  • Use stats from the State of Project Management Report and other industry research to create a case for change so that the PMO can get engagement and buy-in from Senior teams. Our inability to do this well is industry-wide so lots of data exist.
  • Do a maturity assessment to find out where you can improve and identify tactics you can use to ensure that lessons learned, and knowledge management can be planned into the roadmap of organisational PPM maturity.
  • Enable yourself with technology. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a myriad of tools available for PMOs to lever. Utilising a central space where lessons can be collated, analysed, actions associated with is a sure-fire way to make life a little easier for all involved.

Make it fun. Because of all the reasons we have identified, PMOs have a unique opportunity to make enabling processes such as this one more light-hearted and fun to use. Consider how you categorise your lessons, how you prepare for your workshops, how you allow people to engage. And do not be afraid to think outside of the box.What works for Lessons Learned in PMOs?

What works for Lessons Learned in PMOs?

But what about the Humans?!

Culture changes when the organisation is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.

Frances Hesselbein

We know that humans are the most difficult part of organisational change. We also know that culture takes time. To successfully change culture PMOs need to put people (and all their flaws and frustrations) at the heart of everything they do.

Many PMOs focus on process and technology first and hope that the people come along. This was very evident during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and has been written about extensively.

Again, PMOs have an opportunity to develop a better way within their organisation, by putting knowledge management and lessons learned at the heart, making it easy to do, making it valuable, and making it a ‘safe place for people to share opinions and experiences.

Bringing people along on the journey is fundamental to doing this well, for that PMOs need to be brave (just like everyone else), change perceptions by doing things a little differently, as well as understand and take a #HumanFirst approach.

How can a Project Manager do Lessons Learned?

For some practical things, you can do straight away if you are tasked with delivering change, and understand that documenting, communicating and reviewing lessons learned provide great benefit if they are done well.  

Consider that often activities of this type tend to be carried out in informal conversations whereby people share their perspectives on what they thought about the project and what could have gone better. Discussing these things should help to improve the process in a future project. 

1) Collect lessons learned throughout your project’s lifecycle 

Dedicate time to capturing them after key project milestones, such as at the end of a project phase or stage. You will thank your past self for documenting your lessons whilst they were still fresh in everyone’s mind because this activity will support you with writing your mandated project closure documentation. As the project nears the end of its life, your project team will start to disband, so it is important to capture your lessons before you run out of time and before memories can fade. 

Moreover, performing regular lessons learned reviews throughout your project’s life shall set your project up for success. The sooner you can identify a negative lesson, the sooner you can plan and implement recommendations to recover your project. Similarly, identifying positive lessons as early as possible will enable you to identify opportunities for repeating them. 

2) Include recommendations 

Capture practical recommendations for all your lessons, so that you can learn from them in the future. During your reviews, it is important to apply equal focus to what went well, what did not go so well, and what could be improved. When capturing your recommendations, identify where you may need support to implement certain actions, so that you and your organisation are more likely to learn from your lessons. 

If you neglect to discuss and document any recommendations, then all you may produce is a list of positive and negative statements about your project. Such a list will not help you and others to learn from anything, so use your reviews to evaluate ways to improve for next time. 

3) Publish your lessons learned 

Consider storing your lessons learned in a central location, so that you can share your knowledge with the wider organisation. If all project teams were to contribute to the consolidated lessons learned log, then you could use this list as a valuable communications tool at project kick-off and throughout your project’s lifecycle. 

Furthermore, surfacing all lessons in one place means that lessons cannot be forgotten about in an archived project closure document. Your PMO and senior management could use this central location to perform and report on analyses. 

4) Be collaborative 

Involve your project team and key stakeholders in lessons learned exercises so that you can celebrate successes, recognise what could be improved, and hear from other people in a safe environment. To facilitate these conversations, organise lessons learned workshops and one-to-one interviews. 

Next Steps

If you want to discuss your approach to Lessons Learned and wider knowledge management, why not book a session with our DrPMO Clinic and spend 30 minutes with a Wellingtone specialist who can help you to clarify your thinking. 

Alternatively consider engaging an independent facilitator, to ensure that your lessons learned activities are fair and thorough. Wellingtone runs focused and practical workshops for our clients, acting as your critical friend and providing real-world guidance, learnings, and advice. 

Each engagement is unique but is typically characterised by the following: 

  • Delivered by one of our most senior PPM Consultants 
  • A defined short term 1 – 3-day engagement 
  • Clearly agreed on deliverables 
  • Workshops with stakeholders, one-to-one or as a group 
  • Concise, practical report 
  • Presentation to senior management