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What is lessons learned in projects management?

Lessons learned: Documented experiences that can be used to improve the future management of projects, programmes and portfolios.

Lessons learned in project management can be valuable in pre-empting what factors are likely to have the biggest impact on future projects, programmes or portfolios. In the past, the idea of lessons learned in project-based working was popular but many organisations report that although lessons may be documented, they are not reliably learned and practices adjusted to capitalise on the learning. Learning – the creation and use of knowledge – is a people-based practice. One effective way of people coming together to share knowledge, challenge perceptions and create new knowledge is through a community of practice. Lessons learned as part of a post-project review are fundamental to on-going knowledge management.*

Lessons learned in project management can be a powerful tool. We don’t always have to wait until the end of a project to carry out lessons learned. The danger of waiting until the end of a project to identify, capture and analyse lessons is that most project team members will already be focussed on the next project. Project momentum will have slowed down and most of the team will see this as a 'box ticking' exercise. As a result, only a fraction of the lessons that could be valuable to future projects are recorded and passed on. Even if an organisation has an effective method of communicating its lessons and learning from them, an important element (identifying and capturing lessons learned) will have been compromised.

Lessons learned reports and reviews should be carried out at the end of each formal phase of the project and any learnings rapidly utilised both within the project being reviewed and in other related projects. Setting up a lessons learned log during the project start-up will help to establish the process as a core part of project management.

As the project professional, you should encourage your team to share knowledge, provide the opportunity for lessons to be learned, and take on learning from previous projects. Sharing knowledge and learning is a collective responsibility.

Encouraging the use of lessons learned and regularly reviewing it as part of the risk management process will also make it more meaningful and relevant to the work of the team. Ongoing capture of learnings ‘as you go’ will also make it a lot easier to incorporate lessons learned in the end of project report.

Read more about when how to capture, share and approach lessons learned here from Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell.

*References Body of Knowledge 7th edition, Starting Out in Project Management

Download report

How and when to share lessons learned

It’s not enough to close out the project and to create a lessons learned report - the reports have to be made available to others in a way that makes them want to read and apply the lessons. The key to this is effective communication:

  • Organising the critical information in an easy to understand way that that makes its relevance apparent.
  • Ensuring that the different stakeholder groups are aware that the information is available, and that they know where to find it.
  • Presenting the information in such a way that people can quickly extract it and turn it into useful actions.

Learn more on how and when to share lessons learned here.

Lessons Learned

Here are some examples of lessons learned

The Carillion collapse in early 2018 seemingly took many by surprise, yet someone with a reasonable knowledge of accounting could have easily foreseen trouble ahead just by looking at their accounts, without even having to read the footnotes.

This series of webinars looks at:

  • selecting a financially sound provider
  • top 10 ways to protect yourself through the contract
  • managing projects with failing contractors

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Part 1 : selecting a financially sound provider webinar

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Part 2 : top 10 ways to protect yourself through the contract webinar

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Part 3 : managing projects with failing contractors

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Need a lessons learned checklist?

Visit APM Learning to find your downloadable lessons learned template to help keep you on track.
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