Lessons Learned: Does It Really Work in Projects?

Lessons Learned

After completion of each project it is recommended to conduct a lessons learned session with a team. But many people including some project managers believe that lessons learned is just yet another meeting and a waste of time. Let`s figure out if it’s true or not.

What is Lessons Learned Session and How It Differs from Retrospective Meeting

First, let’s try to understand what  actually a lessons learned meeting is and what’s the difference between it and a well-known in Scrum retrospective meeting. The main difference is that a retrospective meeting is dedicated to process improvements over the project duration and is conducted quite often, in particular, at the end of each iteration. On the contrary, lessons learned session  is conducted only once, at the end of the project, and its main purpose is to analyze the whole project and figure out what was done well and what could be improved. At this meeting you look retrospectively not at a short iteration but at the whole project cycle from its start to finish, which allows you to define casual connections, consequences of some decisions and other issues better, etc.

Technically lessons learned meeting is about past, not about present or future, as a retrospective meeting is. And this is actually why many people feel sceptical about this event. But wait a minute! What about collecting your project experience for future use? I agree that in most cases the team will break apart after the project completion. But each team member takes some takeaways from the previous project and can not only use them on practice, but also share them with new team members. This is especially valid when team members remain at the same organization, just being assigned to other projects.

In my opinion, a lessons learned meeting is really useful. It is definitely worth conducting because by learning from project failures we have less risk to repeat similar situations in future projects. Add to this, by maximizing on project successes we get opportunities to implement good processes and practices in order to successfully complete future work. But it is very important to conduct a lessons learned event in a proper way because being done incorrectly it may ruin the idea and has no effects. 

Lessons Learned Process
A well-organized lessons learned process comprises 5 consistent steps: collecting feedback from the team, analysing accumulated information, documenting it, storing it and retrieving it in a case of need.  Let’s go over them and see what must be done to get the most out of lessons learned.

Lessons Learned Meeting Preparation

In order to get good results from a lessons learned session you need to do some preparation in advance. Minimal preparation includes listing all the participants and explaining them what the purpose of the meeting is and what is going to be discussed. It is also very important to let the participants know the rules: everyone is allowed to share ideas and speak up, but they aren’t  obliged to do that. Everyone is welcome just to listen if they don’t want to express their opinions.

If you want to get more from your lessons learned, you should run an extra mile and conduct a lessons learned survey. You may split  this survey into some categories, project areas or phases depending on what is more suitable for your project. It may comprise different types of questions, but it is highly recommended to include at least one open question in each section, so that team members could provide a detailed answer and feedback.

The main purpose of the survey is to help your team members come up with their ideas in advance, in order to avoid the situation when all the participants have nothing to say. Besides this, the survey gives an opportunity to provide input for those who are unable to attend  the lessons learned event. Also, this survey helps manager as a facilitator of the meeting prepare a clear and structured agenda and drive the meeting in a proper way. Here you may find an example of the lessons learned survey I use for IT projects. As you may notice, this lessons learned survey template is divided into a couple of categories:

  • General project issues and communication
  • Schedule estimation issues
  • Design, implementation and testing processes
  • Perceived project life cycle
  • Development and process issues

You may definitely create your own categories depending on your project specifics. Alternatively, you may use project process groups as the categories for your survey (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring, Controlling and closing) and then divide them into sub-categories.

After the survey has been done, a manager has to do some additional work on analyzing results and preparing a better visualisation. The latter can be achieved by the means of PowerPoint,  Google Slides or other tools. Thus, the manager can see what areas require more attention and then plan the meeting appropriately.

Conducting a Lessons Learned Meeting 

When the lessons learned meeting starts, it’s very important to articulate the purpose and the rules of the meeting mentioned above in this article. If everything is clear for all the participants, you may start the meeting with presenting the results of the survey.

Ask people to highlight what was done well on the particular area of the project and after that proceed to discuss what the team could have improved or done differently within this area. The discussion needs to be about the project, not about the personalities. For example, instead of blaming someone for taking vacation in an important period of the project, it is better to point out that there should have been a better plan of employees` substitution.

Though, you may use another lessons learned format and ask people to express their ideas in turn. Everyone shares one thing they consider important and passes the turn to the next team member. The next one can either continue the discussion with his/her items or passes the turn  without saying anything. While the meeting is going around and the team members are sharing their thoughts, a facilitator is writing down all the ideas either on whiteboard or on a virtual board (in a case of a remote team). In other words, he is capturing lessons learned.

During the discussion of each item try to figure out what  its impact on the project is and what recommendations should be done for the future.

Repeat the procedure described above so many times so many questions or sections you have in your survey. When it is nothing left to discuss and no one has anything else to add, give each person a definite number of votes, depending on the number of project areas and survey sections. I can suggest giving one person up to 3 voices per each project area or phase. After that let the participants vote for the lessons learned they consider the most important. It will give you an opportunity to find out your TOP 3 or TOP 5 lessons learned.

Lessons Learned Report

When the meeting is over, you have got all of the ideas, the top list of the lessons learned and some recommendations on how to avoid or at least mitigate the problems on the future projects. The manager should process all the information and then create a summary document. In the introduction section of the lessons learned document it’s essential  to explain the methodology of the study and then show the results in the form of a table indicating lessons learned, their impact and recommendations. See an example of lessons learned template below (click on it to enlarge).

Lessons Learned Report Sample
In this document the manager may highlight TOP 3 – TOP 5 lessons learned on both negative and positive aspects, but all the other results should also be mentioned.

After the lessons learned document is created the manager provides the report  to all the stakeholders. First, send the detailed lessons learned report to all the participants asking them to confirm the accuracy of the report in some short period of time.  After the report is finalized, the entire project team receives the copy, even if they didn`t participate in the lessons learned session.

The facilitator also should prepare the summary for the leadership. This report presents an overview of the lessons learned process and a summary of project strengths (what went well), project weaknesses (what went wrong) and recommendations (what has to be improved).

After that, depending on the level of your company, the lessons learned report may be stored either in some shared company`s repository (lessons learned database) or just become a personal artifact of the people who were involved in the project and lessons learned activities.

Anyway, it is quite important for managers to retrieve and familiarize with documented project lessons learned when starting a new project. Large organizations with Project Management Office in place can give employees some tools for studying previously documented lessons learned, conduct trainings for project managers based on them, provide them with lessons learned samples, etc. As for individual project managers, from time to time they can refer to their own lessons learned examples or to those ones documented by their colleagues in order to repeat the best practices and avoid recurrence of mistakes in the upcoming projects.

Well, now it’s your turn. Do you still think that lessons learned meeting is just a waste of time? Or maybe you`re an ardent supporter of lessons learned? Please, share your thoughts in the comments!

P. S. By the way, I`ve been always curious what is correct: “lessons learned” or “lessons learnt”, because I stumble upon both versions. Working on this article I looked into the Oxford Dictionary to make it clear. The answer is – both versions are acceptable, but “lessons learnt” is a British variant.

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