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The ‘why’ not the ‘what’: How to make lessons learned easy

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We all know we should be reflecting on professional practice and the process of bringing strategy into being through project delivery, but it’s often hard to find the time for lessons learned activities.

Even if we have the time, lessons learned activities often aren’t meaningful. One of my takeaways from reading Sponsoring a Major Project: The Crossrail experience was that the team involved did not follow the recommendations that had already been identified in an earlier review. We often know how to do lessons learned; we just don’t actually learn anything.

With 8.5% of the UK’s population working in the project profession, you’d expect that collective wisdom would abound, and yet organisations still make the same mistakes, project after project.

So how can we make the process of lessons learned easier and more meaningful?

Making it easier to find lessons

When I first started learning about projects, the expectation was that capturing lessons was an activity that took place once the project work was done. It was a retrospective exercise looking back at what we had achieved, but it quickly became clear that this approach leaves a lot to be desired.

Record and reflect on lessons as you go through the project, so you avoid getting to the end and thinking: ‘What could we have done better, now it’s too late to change anything?’ Making small, incremental changes along the way helps you in a project and ensures you put your learning into practice instead of simply documenting it and filing it away.

Look for lessons throughout the project:

  • during issue resolution
  • from process improvement suggestions
  • during regular conversations with stakeholders about how the project is going
  • when dealing with quality problems
  • while carrying out risk management activities and planning
  • when you feel you’ve resolved a conflict or removed a blocker

Making it easier to capture lessons

What lessons did you learn on the project you were working on 18 months ago?

I can’t remember either.

We need to capture lessons in a way that makes it easy for us to look back and see what happened so we can use that knowledge again. Think about how to categorise lessons and what tool you are going to use to store them in. It needs to be searchable, with the ability to add categories and tags to aid people looking up information in the future.

Focus on the why, not the what of the lesson. So there was a delay that caused issues with expectations and next time we’ll ensure timeframes are adequately estimated and suppliers are on board. That’s not good enough. What was the root cause of the delay?

If your lesson ends up being some variant of ‘we didn’t follow good project management practice’, such as skipping steps in a process or not doing a good job of managing scheduling, planning, estimating or resources, ask yourself why good practice wasn’t applied. These are harder conversations to have but they lead to more insightful action steps afterwards.

Making it easier to learn lessons

Let’s face it: you might have stakeholders who are jaded about the lessons learned process, especially if you run them regularly. If they don’t see any change happening, they’ll start to wonder whether it’s worth turning up to the conversations.

The absolute key to lessons learned is not the learning, although that’s good too. It’s the doing. Doing something differently next time is the ultimate goal, and if people see that lessons are driving different actions, then they’ll start to appreciate the value in the experience.

The easiest way to do this is to build a ‘look at lessons from past projects’ step into the start of your business case process or delivery methodology. Add a tick box or a field to your templates and governance documentation. Prompt people to seek out learnings from others.

The goal is to get lessons learned turned into something practical and actionable, so for each point uncovered, think about how you would turn that into an actionable improvement or way of working that means you benefit from what’s been learned.

In your lessons learned discussions, turn each point identified into an action with an owner and make sure they are followed up.

Learning from project experience should mean the next project you do is better, both for you personally and the organisation generally. The process contributes to building organisational knowledge. Focus on creating change from that knowledge to embed and benefit from what you learn, and do it often, in small ways, to make the process feel less like an overhead and more like a useful step towards improving your professional practice.


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