How to Conduct Effective Lessons Learned on Your Project
Lessons Learned is a powerful but often overlooked project management tool. Organizations or teams often do not fully realize the benefits of conducting lessons learned exercises on their projects. There are a few reasons for this. Often, it is difficult for the project team to see the value in "reflecting" on work that is either still in progress or just recently completed. Additionally, your organization may not have a robust way of storing and accessing lessons learned on past projects. If your lessons learned exercises are conducted out of necessity to "tick a box," only to get filed away in a place where no one will ever look at them again, know that there is a better way. Continue reading to find out how to make your Lessons Learned productive and effective.
The Lessons Learned activity should occur throughout every project. Conducting this exercise regularly is an opportunity to reflect on project progress as well as the team's experience. It is a great "pulse check" of the team's morale and can provide a valuable alternative insight into your project's progress. We are all used to measuring project progress in terms of budget, scope, schedule, and quality management. Those are the tangibles. When done correctly, Lessons Learned gives us an insight not only into the tangibles, but also into some of the intangibles. These items include but are not limited to the value the team sees in their own work, the team's morale, and the perceived effectiveness of certain policies and procedures.
Ensuring that this exercise is fruitful for the team instead of a forgotten activity is a responsibility that falls on - you guessed it - the project manager. Project managers are responsible for driving lessons learned exercises, documenting the team's sentiment, and using the lessons learned to adjust the team's approach going forward. This can have effective benefits not only to your project, but to your entire organization. This article will be your comprehensive step-by-step guide to conducting successful Lessons Learned exercises on your projects.
1. Lessons Learned Process
Each time you conduct a Lessons Learned exercise, a routine process should be followed to ensure that the most pertinent information is captured. Let's go through this process first to get the basics down.
- Identify (Pre-Work). Identify comments and recommendations that could be valuable for future projects. In order to do this, the project manager needs to spend some time preparing in advance. Create questions to ask the team and consider doing a project survey prior to holding the live session. This will get your project team thinking about the kinds of things they want to bring up later on.
- Conduct Lessons Learned. When conducting the lessons learned session, focus on a few key questions, and allow the team to speak openly. For question ideas, see "Types of Questions to Ask" in the next section.
- Document. Once the lessons learned exercise has been conducted, it is the project manager's job to document appropriately and disseminate information to the organization. First and foremost, lessons learned should be distributed to project stakeholders.
- Tip: Lessons learned reports can be pretty detailed, and not all of the information will be pertinent to your project stakeholders. Consider distributing two distinct types of reports: a detailed report on a "need to know" basis, and a summary of valuable information for executive leadership.
- Analyze. Once information has been documented and distributed, it's time to analyze the results in a practical way. Identify process improvements or trainings that may need to be conducted with your project team.
- Store. Lessons learned exercises should always be stored in a repository for easy access by other members of the organization. If your organization has a project management office (PMO), then the lessons learned repository may exist on the PMO's shared drive. Follow your organization's policies.
2. Types of Questions to Ask
Here are some example types of questions to ask your team members to encourage engagement. Notice that we focus on all time periods: past, present, and future.
- Review the original project plan:
- What did we set out to achieve?
- What did we actually achieve?
- Why did the plan change as we progressed through this project?
- What worked:
- What techniques proved useful?
- What did we do well together as a team?
- Which of our methods or processes felt seamless?
- What did not work:
- What unexpected challenges did we face?
- What techniques were not useful?
- Which of our methods or processes felt cumbersome?
- People & Environment
- Was there anything about this particular client or project that was unique?
- Did our team resolve conflict quickly?
- What was the most satisfying part of working on this project?
- Did our project make a meaningful impact?
- Unresolved Business
- What keeps you up at night?
- What might we need to do in the future to improve?
- What can we do better next time?
3. Tips & Tricks
Here are effective ways to ensure that your Lessons Learned exercises are engaging and valuable on every project.
- Lessons Learned are not effective if only done at the end of your project. Lessons Learned can be done at any time during the project life cycle - whether that is in the middle of a phase or at the end of a phase. Waiting until the project is in the closing phase to do one big Lessons Learned exercise will feel superficial to your project team. Your team should have the opportunity to feel valued and heard throughout the life of your project, and good project managers will also note that practices must be adapted as needed. Your project is much more likely to fail if no management plans or policies are adapted from their original state.
- Conduct Lessons Learned in line with your company culture. Some organizations may conduct lessons learned in a formal exercise or at certain phases of a project. Others may simply conduct lessons learned on an "as needed" basis in a more casual setting.
- Establish trust with your team and communicate how lessons learned will be used. Assure your team that their opinion is valuable and let them know how the lessons learned exercise will be used. Some team members may be skeptical that their opinions will result in any real change, which can cause disengagement and apathy. By being as transparent as possible with your team and letting them know how they will make a difference, you are likely to have a much more productive conversation.
- Document all angles - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some team members may take issue with a certain policy or procedure, while others find it to be effective. There is no right or wrong way to view project progress when conducting lessons learned. Let your team members speak their minds, and document opposing viewpoints, if they exist.
- But - do not assign blame to specific team members. This is not an opportunity for team members to place responsibility on another individual's shoulders. If you see this start to happen, remind them to focus on processes over individuals. Never include individual blame in a lessons learned report.
4. The Next Level: Evaluate Past Projects
After Lessons Learned have been conducted and there is an easily accessible document repository in place, project managers should be able to easily access Lessons Learned from previous projects to apply to their current project. Your organization should have best practices in place that have formed over time as the repository has been established. This is one of the key activities during the initiation phase of any successful project. If Lessons Learned are available, always take the time to evaluate them from similar projects. In order to be able to effectively use Lessons Learned exercises, the following must be true:
- Lessons learned exercises for similar projects must be stored in an easily accessible place. Often, this is the responsibility of the PMO. A director in your department may keep lessons learned exercises organized by type of project performed. Wherever the documents are stored, they should be easy enough to access by those who need them.
- Reports should be digestible and actionable. Wordy reports are difficult to digest down to what is most important. Summarizing information in a way that helps a future project manager is important.
- Team members must be engaged. When incorporating a new set of best practices on a project, make your project team members part of the process. When your team has input on a new procedure or implementation plan, they will feel more committed and involved. They will also be more likely to take responsibility and follow through.
Unfortunately, Lessons Learned is an activity often skipped on projects. Once a project is completed, it can be difficult to regroup the team together, especially if it is not a standard practice in the organization. Many people on the team may feel that it is pointless to conduct lessons learned on something that is still so fresh in their minds. Do not fall into this trap - lessons learned is actually the most useful while the project team can still vividly remember the details of the project. It is an effective way to prevent past mistakes from repeating on future project endeavors. Try implementing these best practices the next time you conduct Lessons Learned on your project, your team will see just how valuable it can be.