When used well, lessons learned can contribute to the overall success of projects by re-using and building on approaches that have worked well and avoiding the repetition of previous mistakes. Lessons learned can also represent valuable intellectual property, deepen the relationship between suppliers and customers, and generally provide providing a competitive advantage. A disciplined approach to lessons learned can make an important difference to cost, quality and time.
Some of the failure modes encountered are:
- Lessons learned are often not captured well. There are several different ways in which this could be done more effectively, for instance by capturing lessons learned through the life of the project.
- Lessons learned need effective methods of communication. Stakeholders need to be made aware of what’s available and how to access it. Conversation is the most effective way to share lessons learned. Communities of practice (e.g. between project managers) may help as might encouraging new teams to share with previous ones, and the use of published guides.
- Adoption of ideas/outcomes from others may be hindered by cultural and behaviour. This may be linked to overall organisational culture, and to whether people are encouraged to learn from ‘mistakes’ or ‘failures’ and ‘successes’. Whilst all individuals should have a responsibility in this area it may help to hold project managers accountable for taking a pro-active approach to lessons learned.
Overall a mix of process and culture can hinder the benefits that could otherwise be gained from a structured approach to lessons learned. Our experience of lessons learned goes a bit further, as they are a key component of knowledge management approaches that we teach and facilitate for sharing learning, insights and experience within and between project and operational teams.
Lessons learned can be captured throughout the life of a project (or other kind of team), or at the end. The knowledge management literature1 refers to learning before, during and after.
Frequent, short, and relatively informal learning reviews during the life of a project or operational team are sometimes known as ‘After Action Reviews’. First introduced by the US Army, the intent is to capture and review lessons learned after any significant event, so that any corrective or supporting action can be implemented immediately. In a project team, these After Action Reviews could be carried out after a critical activity or at each stage gate. In an operational team they could occur as part of regular or periodic team meetings. Important ground-rules for these reviews include: everyone being involved, no blame, and ensuring that lessons are shared with everyone relevant whether inside or outside the team. A typical structure for After Action Reviews will include: a recap of objectives, what actually happened and how this differed from the intent, what can be learnt from this difference, and who to share the lessons learned with. What can be learnt covers both what contributed to things going well, and the causes for anything not going well.
A more reflective learning retrospect or history takes place at the end of a project or programme. It will explore the same questions as an After Action Review, but the recap of objectives and what happened will be a broader based exercise. We’ve facilitated this kind of learning review for a project in a workshop setting, with the originally planned and actual project milestones mapped out and annotated with post-it notes from the team members to indicate what went well and what could have been improved against these milestones. Again this kind of exercise will be most effective where there is involvement of the whole team, including the project sponsor(s), and agreement on what lessons learned will be shared with whom, how and when.
The third type of learning intervention takes place ‘before’ or at the start of a project or operational team. Also known as ‘Peer Assists’, this involves bringing together the members of the new team, and some or all members of previous teams who have lessons learned to share. In this situation, the new team lays out its draft plans, concerns, ideas and any specific questions for the visiting team. The visiting team considers and then shares what insights it can bring to the new team. The new team then uses these insights to revise its plans and also as input for its risk analysis.
As noted in the web briefing, the successful adoption of some or all of these three approaches for learning before, during and after will depend on the rigour with which teams and organisations implement the processes, and the nature of the supporting culture and behaviours. Incorporation of the learning processes into project methodology, facilitation through PMOs or other central groups, and role modelling by sponsors and management teams are examples of how such successful adoption can be enabled.
Further contributions on this topic are welcome.
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By Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell, RiverRhee Consulting
1. Chris Collison & Geoff Parcell. Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations. Capstone, 2nd edition, 2004