The Importance of Lessons Learned

Updated: May 2, 2020

We've all been through it. You come to the end of your Project and you're about to celebrate, when you get handed the end-of-Project checklist and there it is glaring at you..... Lessons Learned. Conversely, there's nothing worse than starting a new Project and attempting to search for the top things people did right or wrong on similar Projects, and, that's right.... it's NEVER been done.

It can be tough to make time to gather everyone in a room when you've got exciting new Projects on the doorstep, but completing lessons learned can pay dividends to you and your company. Use this simple guide to help you get the most out of it!

1. Don't leave it until the end of the Project.

You should schedule periodic reviews and attach checkpoints to key milestones to ensure that lessons learned are captured throughout the life of the Project. Many people forget most of the key lessons by the time the Project is finished, therefore most tend to focus on the Testing and Go-Live phases (some of which can't be helped due to earlier mistakes). Try and promote a culture of sharing lessons as they appear, rather than waiting for a review meeting or end-stage checkpoint; some find this helpful as they directly benefit from the lessons rather than passing the benefit onto colleagues for future Projects.

2. Keep in mind why and how.

A lessons learned document isn't just a list of all the things that went wrong. try and focus on why something good or bad happened and how you can ensure it does or doesn't happen again. Perform a Route Cause Analysis (RCA) to truly find out the main reason why something good/bad happened, and then do something about it. An example may be if you discover that your Project's failure to deliver the customers expectations was because you didn't fully understand their requirements (and your root cause was because you didn't have a Business Analyst), then make it a requirement for any new Project above a certain threshold to have a Business Analyst in place before you agree the scope.

3. Ask the key questions.

Having a basic format of questions ready is handy when consulting your team for ideas. Using this format can help structure your lessons learned to make it easy to read for others (you could even 'tag' each lesson so you can filter on positive lessons or negative lessons!)

  • What should we start doing?

  • What should we stop doing?

  • What should we keep doing?

  • What is still causing issues?

4. Evaluate each stage.

When discussing lessons with your team, sometimes colleagues can be short of ideas. To combat this, try discussing the major phases of your Project along with the key elements in each. Some examples below:

  • Plans.

  • Scope & Requirements.

  • Budgeting & Resourcing.

  • Risk & Issue Management.

  • Reporting.

  • Stakeholder Management.

  • Communication.

  • Quality Management.

  • Testing.

  • Governance & Meetings.

5. Get actions noted and owners assigned.

The most common mistake in the lessons learned process is that it ends up as a retrospective list of things that went wrong, but nobody did anything about. That may sound harsh, but for lessons learned to be effective they need to be actionable by a specific person and descriptive enough that others can learn from it! If you compete the lessons learned process early and regularly, then hopefully you will be able to take corrective action and prevent the same thing happening in a later phase. Similarly you can take note of the positives and take action to ensure they are repeated/continued throughout the Project lifecycle.

6. Ensure your lessons learned are widely used.

Make them accessible by creating a knowledge base or intranet, and make reviewing lessons learned a fundamental step in your project management process/methodology. You could include the link in any project initiation checklists or Programme on-boarding materials to ensure that the lessons learned step is included when starting new Projects or on boarding new PM's.

To help you with Lessons Learned, I have included two free templates below (a high-level PPT and a detailed Excel Log). Enjoy!