Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

How good are we at lessons learned?


We as human beings have the incomprehensible ability to make the same mistakes over and again. You have to take a glance at history to see the same pattern repeat itself – a nation is enlightened, makes rapid progress, gets intolerant and starts to impose itself, loses its hold and goes back to the pack. Chinese, Persians, Romans, Greeks, Ottomans and Arabs – all had a go. In recent times Great Britain and the United States. It is therefore not surprising that we do the same with projects.

Lessons Learned

One of the PRINCE2 principles is to learn from previous lessons. Good in theory. How well is it done? Not very well in my view. Lessons learned is something that is left to the end of the project in my experience. On any sizeable project, the project team should be implementing lessons learned as they go. Lessons learned is not only for not repeating the mistakes of one project in another, it is also to ensure mistakes of one task in the project is not repeated in another.

The difficulty of recording lessons learned is very similar to that of benefits realisation in a project. By the time people have some ability to look into that, the project is completed, and attention has shifted to the next project, or towards embedding the products of the project into the organisation. Keeping focus to ensure this is captured takes a lot of discipline. Standard practices are also required for capturing lessons and reviewing those at the initiation stage of any projects. Otherwise, the lessons are not worth the paper (or disk space) they are captured on!

What things should you capture as part of lessons learned? The first and foremost thing you must capture is your estimated effort versus actual time spent. Estimation is an inexact science. Projects by nature are risky and whatever methodology you use to estimate, it is a matter of continually refining those. The bare numbers are not sufficient. You must analyse what led to those numbers. You may have estimated high, but because of scope creep you may have come on budget. Was that success or failure?

A second thing I recommend is the identification or risks. Were there issues which were not identified as risks at the outset? If not, what led to those issues? How could they be identified better in future? Where issues were identified as risks at the outset, review the risk responses. Were they appropriate? Were the likelihood, impact and proximity identified correctly? If not, try and analyse how it could be done better.

I would also look to see if the project methodology was tailored to suit the project and the organisation. Many organisations think using a methodology like PRINCE2 will ensure success. Without the appropriate tailoring, methodologies are doomed to failure. It is not the methodology that brings success, it is the people that understand the principles and ask the right questions that make the difference.

These are by no means an exclusive list. In many ways you should look to evaluate each of the six tolerances that the organisation affords a project manager – time, cost, scope, risk, quality and benefits. The three above are the most common causes of repeat mistakes from my experience.

Image Credit: Ryan Renfrew

One response to “How good are we at lessons learned?

  1. Pingback: Expectation is reality « Project Management in Practice

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