Back in February 2009 I wrote an article entitled “Lessons Learned” which discussed how and when to conduct Lessons Learned sessions, how to document them and what benefit they can be to others.

Since I believe that the process of review and documenting Lessons Learned is critical to every project manager in making them better PMs in the future as well as critical to the organization’s future success, I’m always looking for more information on the subject. I found it in Gary Heerkens’ book “Project Management” and I’ve included his information on the Lessons Learned process below.

How to Transfer What You’ve Learned to Others

One of the ways you can support the ongoing improvement of your organization’s project execution methods comes in the form of lessons learned studies. The purpose of a lessons learned study is to obtain information through the systematic review of project experiences. Understanding the nature of positive and negative experiences allows future projects to avoid unfavorable influences (problems), and exploit favorable opportunities.

You should include input from all key stakeholders in your study, with you and the project team typically taking a leading role in organizing and carrying out the study. The format and structure of your lessons learned sessions (i.e., the logistics) can vary, but it is often done in a team meeting context, using an approach similar to brainstorming.

The Lessons Learned Process

You will probably find the lessons learned process to be most productive when it is oriented toward identifying problems you and your team encountered, and suggesting ways to avoid similar problems in the future. You can accomplish this by asking the following questions for each identified problem:

How to Transfer What You've Learned to Others

What was the problem and its impact? Get a description of the perceived problem and its specific effect(s) on the project. In other words, find out what happened to the project as a result of the problem.

What caused this problem to occur? Find out the known or perceived root cause of the problem. If unknown, the cost of securing this knowledge needs to be weighed against its potential benefit.

Why was the problem undetected? This involves a search for possible flaws in monitoring, control, or reporting methods. Caution: This question can also be sensitive, as it may involve individual performance problems.

Can this problem be eliminated in the future? Here you’re asking for suggestions on specific steps aimed at precluding a future occurrence. Total elimination is not always possible; however you can come up with strategies for reducing the probability of it happening again.

If it cannot be eliminated, are there ways it could be detected? Here you’re looking for suggestions on how the team can alter monitoring, control, or reporting methods in ways that allow for earlier or more reliable detection of the problem.

Tips on Conducting Effective Lessons Learned Studies

In addition to following the process steps outlined above, consider these tips for ensuring a relatively painless and effective experience for everyone involved:

Don’t wait until the end of the project to solicit input. Waiting until the last minute to conduct lessons learned studies can be problematic. Your team may have partially dissolved, making it difficult to get everyone together. Even if you do get them together, the enthusiasm level may not be what you’d like. Finally, it can be taxing on the memories of those involved, and you may get input that’s been altered by the passage of time. Conduct sessions periodically—either at the end of a logical phase of the project, or at some regular interval of team meetings.

Allow the opportunity for submitting input anonymously. As mentioned above, this may allow information and ideas to reach you that are unlikely to surface in group sessions, or would not be appropriate.

Tips on Conducting Effective Lessons Learned Studies

Maintain up-to-date and accurate records. This reduces the reliance on people’s memories. It will also facilitate the process of determining root causes, verifying the extent of problems, correlating possible causes and effects, etc.

Be sure to examine successes as well as problems. Reviewing positive effects can reinforce the value of certain methods, particularly the ones that people tend to avoid or undervalue.

Tips on Getting Others to Implement Your Lessons

It’s one thing to alert others to the problems you faced and to provide information about what you and your team have encountered. However, if you do not structure your information so that others can actually apply the lessons you’ve learned, your organization hasn’t really benefited. Below are some suggestions on ensuring that your wisdom is acted on:

Don’t relate lessons learned only to the specific context of your project. Make sure you express lessons learned in general terms in order to benefit the organization at large. Generalize the conclusions from your project’s lessons learned in a way that’s meaningful to the widest possible audience.

Don’t just communicate “what went well” and “what didn’t.” Unfortunately, some lessons learned studies are little more than a brain dump of what went well and what didn’t go well. A lack of analysis—or synthesis—fails to provide others in the organization with any real “lesson.” For others to benefit, they need to know how to avoid the problems or to reduce the impact if the problem occurs.

Include lessons learned reviews as a front-end activity in the project life cycle. Lessons learned studies are traditionally thought of as concluding activities only. This one-dimensional view fails to ensure their application by future project teams. Some organizations have addressed this problem by including a step near the beginning of their project process that obligates project teams to review lessons learned files as part of their up-front planning. This strategy “closes the loop” on the learning cycle and helps to ensure that the team actually applies these lessons.