Project Lessons Learned

The project lessons learned process is ineffective in most organizations. One project after another suffers from the same mistakes.  What is even worse is that the bigger the project failure, the less likely they are to learn from it.  The same issues that cause a project to fail also prevent the people involved from learning from the failure. Organizations need processes to make sure they don’t relive project failures. Let’s take a look at a typical project lessons learned session and then talk about the right way to do it.

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Lessons Learned: Poking Through the Wreckage

You shuffled into your project lessons learned session, sick and tired of political games and finger-pointing. Twenty minutes later, you trudged out with the voices still echoing in your head:

  • “You’re responsible for us finishing late!”
  • “Me? You kept making changes. I’m surprised we ever finished!”
  • “You still aren’t finished; the garbage you gave us still doesn’t work!”
  • “What? We gave you what you asked for! But you didn’t train your people to use it”
  • “They need PhD’s to use what you built!”

You walked down the hall knowing this was your fault.  Sure, there were a few jerks involved and it would be easy to blame them. But a good project manager should be able to structure things to make even the jerks productive team members.

Even though scenes like this repeat themselves after every project, many organizations don’t improve their processes for doing projects. The same problems wreck one project after another.  But there is an alternative. What you need is a lessons learned process that gives the project managers an opportunity for continuous improvement.  The time you invest in your lessons learned process can positively affect projects that are underway. It can also reinforce the use of a consistent project management methodology.  You build the project lessons learned process in the following three stages. Lessons Learned Project Management

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 1 – Pre-Launch Peer Review

Our 4PM clients have increased their success by using peer reviews of projects that are nearing launch. That sounds fancier than it is. In this first stage of the project lessons learned process, project managers get feedback on a their plans from other PMs.  They have a meeting (in-person or online) to discuss a recent plan. That gives PMs the chance to share ideas and renew their understanding of the methodology.

The pre-launch stage is a busy time for project managers but it’s also the point at which correcting mistakes is least expensive.  The process is straightforward. The other project managers review the user’s or client’s business situation.  Then they Project Lessons Learnedindependently critique the project’s plan, scope, requirements, WBS, charter, accountability structure, team member assignments and the schedule.  Reviewing several project plans doesn’t take the other PM’s very long if the organization’s project management methodology emphasizes thinking , not creating paperwork.

In the project lessons learned session itself, the other PM’s ask questions and offer ideas. The project manager whose work is under review may or may not take them but they get the benefit of the ideas and opinions of other people engaged in the same type of work.  Every project manager suffers from tunnel vision as he or she works through the development of a detailed plan.  The thinking of other project managers who are not buried in all the detail is very helpful.  It’s easier for them to spot any disconnects between the user’s/client’s business problem and the project plan details.  It’s important to keep this conversation focused on “Are we doing the right project for this business problem?” and “Does the planned control process make sense for the desired business result and resources involved?”  The conversation should be at that high level and not sink into a technology debate.

Project lessons learned sessions  are effective in building consistency in the use of a project management methodology.  Compliance with project management standards tends to slip under the pressure of all the work to be done just prior to launch.  But when project managers know their peers will be reviewing their work, they comply at a point in the lifecycle where comments from the project office or standards people might otherwise be brushed aside. These pre-launch peer reviews are ideal for reinforcing the organization’s project management methodology.  You have the right people gathered and you’re dealing with real business situations and projects, not theoretical ideals.  So these sessions are good opportunities to renew people’s skills in using the organization’s project management methodology.

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 2 – Portfolio Management & Change Control 

The second stage in the project lessons learned process is regular (usually weekly) review of project variances. This can be at the end of the weekly status report or team meeting and after you have defined corrective acProject Meeting Rescuetion for the variances. You review the variances again and focus on how to avoid them in the future. You also identify other tasks or people who are likely to encounter the same issue so it can be avoided. The focus is on ways to avoid a repeat. It does not take long to identify the options.

To accomplish this project lessons learned review, the project methodology must give you a reliable method of identifying changes to the approved baseline schedule. You need a methodology that gives you objective measures of project progress plus the work and cost estimates to measure the variance.

Project Lessons Learned: Stage 3 – Project Team Culture and Leadership Style

The last stage of the project lessons learned is the periodic assessment of your leadership style and the culture of the project team. The work attitudes and effectiveness of the team members are strongly influenced by your leadership behavior. Even a professional team may suffer in silence about the project manager’s leadership and not take the risk of providing constructive feedback. Frank feedback is very useful so you have to make it safe for them to give it.

An effective technique is to ask the team to have lunch together once a quarter.  You don’t attend but you ask them to a write a summary of their consensus of your strengths and weaknesses. You should digest the information but not ask questions about it.  Most importantly you should not make them justify any of their negative findings. That makes you seem defensive. Good project managers act on negative feedback and make improvements. Bad PMs can’t handle the criticism so they dismiss it, learn nothing and never improve. Lessons Learned Questions

Project Lessons Learned: Summary

The three-stage project lessons learned process for project management improvement is an important element in moving the organization toward delivering consistently successful projects.  It also can contribute to developing consistently effective project managers.  We include this project lessons learned process in our project management methodology so organizations and their PMs get better over time and don’t repeatedly relive failures.

You can enhance your PM skills and master the project lessons learned process in our online project management courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on