Coronavirus or COVID-19, a new word added to our vocabulary recently. After the initial shock to the extreme steps being taken to slow a rapid spread, I began thinking about Lessons Learned.

Let’s review; Lessons Learned as defined by Project Management Institutes (PMI) Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBoK): the learning gained from the process of performing the project.  Extraordinary events provide us with new experiences, that is what extraordinary means, out of the ordinary.  Though this event is presently out of the ordinary, things can change to where this event may become more common place.  In this way risk management and learning can be closely connected.  In fact, we would argue that this connection is important, and if our company and project teams are smart, they will connect these.

In the last century there have been about many pandemics: 1918 Spanish flu, H1N1, H3N2, Influenza A, and HIV/AIDS.  In fact, there have been 8 global pandemics since 1981i. These outbreaks left trails and tracks from the first case to the point of being under control. These disasters are but one example of an opportunity from which we can learn. Presuming that learnings have been documented, those learnings should be valuable to the current COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, some of the guidelines in place are right out of actions taken as far back as the 1918 Spanish Flu; limiting gatherings, curtailing traveling, and self-isolation.

The puzzling part is for years the world has been buffeted by diseases.  For years the world has been rocked by these periodic epidemics, yet we seem surprised by this latest event.  Some things are not predictable, these are often referred to as a Black Swanii event.  A black swan risk event is a risk that cannot be predicted forward.  It is beyond what we have ever witnessed, and the only way to see or connect the dots that made or brought the risk to reality is after the fact.  These events are so beyond our experiences that prediction is done in hindsight.  Haven’t there been enough pandemics, albeit perhaps with less immediate damage, for us to recognize that a pandemic of this magnitude could happen?  Perhaps learning from experience is not so easy. The point here is not to comment or discuss the current situation but to bring a light to Lessons Learned. As noted above, the learnings gained form performing a project can be of immense value to everyone from the project manager, to management, and even new project managers. The simple documentation of what worked, what didn’t, what happened, why it happened, and so on can be used to improve the success of future projects.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Referring to the current health crisis, supply chains in some industries are a mess at best if not shutdown. Granted, current supply chains are much more technology advanced or complex that years passed but they are still supply chains.  However, supply chains are the orchestration of many parts, arriving in a specific place, that are transformed from a variety of individual components into an entirely new product. 

Supply Chain management requires back up processes for those ‘what-if’ situations. Referring to the lessons learned from a similar project might provide actions to take to work around an issue leading to delays. Maybe it is a second approved source, or a second approved delivery route, or depending on the critical nature of a deliverable, stockpiling materials. Of course, these back-up plans must be covered by project funding or contingency fund. And there is the possibility that stockpiled materials could – worse case – be scrapped for a loss. Having been on one a project that used stockpiling, the company accountants loved creating a loss. They do major things with numbers.

The foundation of capturing Lessons Learned is – capturing lessons starting on day one of the project. It started with a template. Identify what should be recorded. There are many templates available, so this article will not share a documented template. One place to start to develop one is look at past projects within your organization and see what has been captured in the past. It will give a starting point and as lessons are recorded the template might have to be modified. The first lesson learned might be the past capturing of lessons learned was incomplete or insufficient.

From experience, we find that these lessons learned are often not capitalized.  In some instances, any lessons learned review comes at the end of the project, at best, when memory is required.  We think this is evidence of the lack of priority in preserving learning by the organization.  Learning happens throughout the project, and time should be taken to explore these things as opportunities as they arise.  In agile projects, each sprint there is a retrospective. The retrospective is a review of the last bit of work to see what can be done better.  Even if our organization does not employ an agile approach, there is nothing in conventional project management to suggest that it is not possible to capture learning along the way.

In our latest book, Continuous and Embedded Learning for Organizations connects learning with the project work.  Agile approaches to prize learning, not just in the retrospective, the team sets about the work exploring the work and what each team member knows.  There is a saying, fail fast, fail often. This is not to suggest a long string of only failures, it is more to acknowledge and make a safe space for experimentation and learning.  These potential failures are small, not the sort of event that will take down the business, but opportunities to explore what can be done that may be out of the box.

Areas of interest to capture, what was learned:

  1. If the project plan was altered, why – did it help achieve success
  2. About communications; internal and external
  3. Dealing with sponsor (not by name of course)
  4. Dealing with the client (not by name of course)
  5. Dealing with Procurement & the supply chain
  6. How well did project close out go?
  7. What did the schedule look like? What does actual compared to planned, what specific variance in key areas of interest?

Documenting lessons learned is a pain, it takes time and when the project is complete it is proper to review the list with the team to make sure the list is complete and more importantly correct. BUT that documented list is so helpful for the next project and to others who didn’t execute this project.




ii last accessed 3/31/2020