Why are Lessons Learned so Important?

In today’s competitive business world, companies continually seek ways to improve performance throughout all areas.  This is especially true for project management.  Over the years we have seen organizations train more people in project management, require new hires to have or obtain the PMP certification, and conduct various seminars or events geared toward strengthening their core project management practices.  However, one of the most valuable tools for improving project performance is also one of the most overlooked.  As companies complete projects and hand them off to customers or operations groups, they often move hastily into the next project without ever completing one of the most important parts of project closeout: lessons learned.

How many times have we heard, “We need to get this project wrapped up and handed off because we have another hot one getting ready to start”?  Or how many times have we seen project managers completely or partially forego the formal project closeout process because they’re so eager to achieve project completion and claim success?  It happens far too often and leaves a giant void in the organization’s ability to improve their project management abilities.  Part of the project closeout phase is to formally document and archive the lessons learned from a project.  Why is this so important?  Think about one of the first things a project manager does during the initiation phase of a project:  collect historical information.  It is important because most projects share similarities with past projects and these archived lessons learned are a project manager’s best resource for researching what went right and wrong with similar past projects and greatly reduces the likelihood of encountering the same obstacles that past projects have encountered.  It also enables project managers to capitalize on what went right and enhances the chances of achieving project success.

Creating and archiving lessons learned should be a formal process.  Many times, if organizations do them at all, the lessons learned consist of nothing more than informal notes which other project managers and team members never have access to.  This defeats the entire purpose of this valuable tool and does nothing to improve the organization’s practices.  The project manager should schedule a meeting strictly for the purposes of capturing lessons learned.  The meeting should involve all team members, the project sponsor, and key stakeholders and should be well-structured like all other project meetings. There are various ways to capture lessons learned but discussion topics often include:

  • What went well or worked on this project?
  • What did not work well on this project?
  • What would you keep/change in the future?
  • Were resources adequate?  Too many?
  • Were systems/ technology adequate?
  • Were schedule, scope, cost realistic?  Did we meet goals of each?
  • Did we meet product/project deliverables?  Were they accepted by customer?

Once the lessons learned are completed, it is important that they’re accessible by other project managers and teams in some type of centralized data base or shared drive file.  Over time, the lessons learned repository continues to grow and enables project teams to prevent past failures and capitalize on past successes.   It also provides project managers and teams with a planning foundation for beginning any future projects enough so that they should never really have to start a project from scratch.

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