Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Lessons Learned - Best when Transitioned to Organisational Knowledge

Project people everywhere are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve or add additional value to their projects. Twitter is one resource being used and recently a new Twitter hash-tag (hash-tags allow the user to directly participate in a specific topic of conversation) was created for Project Management Chat (#PMChat). A weekly discussion hosted by Robert Kelly and Rob Prinzo each Friday from 6-7pm (CET), its topics focus on Project Management and Leadership techniques, best practices, and so on.
But this isn’t a blog post about #PMChat. No, this post picks up on a response to one of the questions posed during Friday 30 Sept’s #PMChat topic: Project Closure and Lessons Learned. The question was…

Q2 – How can you assure that lessons learned are actually ‘learned’?

Good question. Why? Because the lessons learned exercise forms a key part of the project management process. But just doing the process alone won’t stop problems repeating. There must be action.

Take for example the kid who falls when attempting a complicated move on the jungle-bars at school. If successful they’d do it again and get better with practise. But when the result is what they’d expect (ie: falling off) or a downright failure (ie: breaking something) they’d naturally do something different next time. The same logic applies to projects, eg: our review has shown that the project organisation we put in place failed us in these 3 critical areas. We must make these specific changes immediately to avoid the same problems next time.

Great the lessons and action necessary have been identified, now who’s responsible?

PM’s are responsible for doing the lessons learned process. They also have a responsibility for learning from those lessons. When a permanent part of an organisation PM’s may have the luxury of continuity. Moving from one project to another they get a clear opportunity to apply changes to how they work, lead and interact with others. But in today’s projects where external PM’s augment in-house teams for short periods of time that learning is likely to disappear with the PM leaving the organisation to learn those same lessons all over again. Lesson 1: identifying and learning lessons is not sole responsibility of the PM.

Often the lessons captured by the process point back to areas outside the PM’s sphere of influence, eg: project hierarchy or organisation, executive/management support and decision making, investment levels and resource allocation. Where that’s the case learning must go beyond the PM. Organisation and project cultures with top-down management influences means those holding senior roles including the PMO (project management office) are ultimately responsible for ensuring changes are made and that they stick. Only those people who make the decisions that trigger projects and set the scene from which all project related support structures, budgets, knowledge and communication emanates have the ability to directly impact the way things are done next time. Lesson 2: senior management / the executive are responsible for a culture that encourages change and takes action.

Lessons however are best learned when they’re transitioned to organisational knowledge. This means not only learning from what has happened before but incorporating them at project start making learning part of ‘the way we do things around here’. We hear about continuous improvement in manufacturing in order to increase production and quality and reduce lead times and costs so why not apply the same logic to projects. After all a project is not an island or a mystery. Its sole purpose is to deliver benefits to the business. Therefore lessons learned are an opportunity for continuous improvement and the nucleus that is a project gives the wider organisation a platform from which to positively leverage them. Lesson 3: Close the gap between projects and the organisation by not isolating one from the other.

For more on how to incorporate lessons learned as you transition from initial implementation to the next phase or operations download a copy of the Whitepaper Principles for Intelligent Transition.

For more on the process to support project closure and lessons learned check out this guest post on the #PMChat Blog by Michael Greer.


  1. A good post on PM Lessons Learned. My research to date suggests that the people (culture) factor is the most likely to negatively influence the dissemination of lessons learned in organisations.

  2. Hi Stephen
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree, people and culture are major factors and a significant reason why so many organisations pay nothing but lip-service to PM LL's. Lessons and any associated action plans are more likely to be objectively identified and actioned when the project sponsorship is strong and well-connected to senior management. This is where the cultural influencers sit.

    Thanks and Happy New Year, Deanne