Lessons Learned Review

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Organizations need lessons learned review processes to make sure they don’t relive project failures. But these processes are ineffective in most organizations. So they make the same mistakes on one project after another. Even worse, the bigger the project failure, the less likely the organization is to learn from it. The same issues that cause a project to fail also prevent the people involved from learning from that failure. Let’s examine a typical Lessons Learned review session. Then we’ll talk about the right way to do it.  Project Lessons Learned Main Page

Lessons Learned: Poking Through the Wreckage

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

    “No, you’re responsible for us finishing late!”
    “Me? You kept making changes. I’m surprised we ever finished!”
    “You still aren’t finished. The crap you gave us still doesn’t work!”

“What? We gave you what you asked for! You just didn’t train your people to use it

“They’d need PhD’s to use what you built!”

You walked down the hall knowing the project failure was your fault. Sure, there were some jerks involved in the project and it would be easy to blame them. But you knew that a good project manager could structure things to make even the jerks be productive.

As scenes like this repeat themselves after each project, the organization’s processes for doing projects don’t improve. The same problems wreck project after project. But there is an alternative.

Living Lessons Learned

What you need instead is a “living” lessons learned process that gives the organization and its project managers an opportunity for continuous improvement. The time you invest in your post-project review should also positively affect projects that are underway. It should reinforce the use of a consistent project management methodology. You gain these advantages with a living lessons learned process conducted in three stages.

Lessons Learned: Step 1 – Pre-Launch Peer Review

Many of our clients use peer reviews of projects thatLessons Learned are ready to launch. That sounds fancier than it is. This just means that PM’s get feedback on their project plan from other PM’s. Sometimes they hold a live web meeting to discuss a recent plan. That gives PMs the chance to share ideas and renew their understanding of the methodology.

While the pre-launch stage is a busy time for project managers, it’s also the point at which correcting mistakes is least expensive. The process is straightforward. Early in the project lifecycle, the other project managers review the business situation faced by the user or client. Then they independently critique the project’s strategic plan, scope statement, requirements, WBS, charter, accountability structure, team assignments and schedule. If the organization’s project management methodology places a premium on thinking  rather than paperwork, it doesn’t take the other project managers very long to review several project plans.

In the review session itself, the other PM’s ask questions and offer ideas, which the project manager whose work is under review may use or ignore. The project manager gets the benefit of the thinking of other PM’s engaged in the same type of work. Every project manager suffers from tunnel vision as he or she works through the final development of their detailed project plan. So the thinking of other project managers who are not buried in all the details is enormously helpful. They can spot disconnects between the user’s or client’s business problem and the project plan details. However, it is important to keep this conversation up at the project management level, focusing 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 not sink into a technology debate.

Sessions like these 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 that must be done just before launch. But when project managers know their peers will be reviewing their work, they tend to comply with the standards.

These pre-launch peer reviews are ideal for reinforcing the organization’s project management methodology. The right people are dealing with real business situations and projects, not theoretical ideals. As a result, these sessions are good opportunities to renew people’s skills in using the organization’s project management methodology.

Lessons Learned: Step 2 – Corrective Action and Changes

The second step in the lessons learned process is regular (usually weekly) review of project variances. The PM and team members will decide on the corrective action they will take on variances at the weekly status report meeting. Then the PM should go through the variances again. During this second round, they focus on how to avoid the same variances in the future. They also identify other tasks that are likely to have the same issue. The focus is on ways to avoid a repeat and it doesn’t take long to identify the options.

To do this review, the project methodology must give PM’s a reliable method of identifying changes to the approved baseline schedule. The organization needs a methodology that gives the PM objective measures of project progress plus the work and cost estimates to measure the variance.

Lessons Learned: Step 3 – Team Culture and Leadership Style

The last step in the lessons learned process is the periodic assessment of the culture of the project team and the project manager’s leadership style. Obviously the project team members’ work attitudes and effectiveness are stroLessons Learnedngly influenced by the leadership behavior of the PM. But even a professional team may suffer in silence about the PM’s leadership rather than take the risk of providing constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback is very useful so you have to offer a “safe” environment for team members to give it. An effective technique is to ask the team to have lunch together once a quarter without the PM. They write a summary of the PM’s strengths and weaknesses on which they reached agreement. The PM should digest the information but ask no questions about it. Most importantly, the PM should not ask them to justify any of the negative feedback. That makes the PM appear defensive. Good project managers act on negative feedback and make themselves better. Bad PM’s can’t handle the criticism and learn nothing.

Lessons Learned Review Summary

The lessons learned review is a three-step “living” lessons learned process for project management improvement. It is an important element in moving the organization toward delivering consistently successful projects because it is a process through the entire project lifecycle. It also contributes to developing a cadre of consistently effective project managers who get better over time and don’t repeatedly relive failures.

More information on lessons learned

We include this post-project review living lessons learned process in our project management methodology.  We teach it in our online project management certifications and training seminars for clients.

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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 60 short project management 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 are on Amazon.com