Lessons Learned In Project Management

The term lessons learned refers to the various experiences project team members have while participating in a project. Lessons are shared in a review session which usually occurs once the project has been completed, with any improvements or best practices incorporated into subsequent projects. 

DefinitionLessons Learned, often abbreviated as LL or LLs, is a systematic process of capturing, documenting, analyzing, and disseminating knowledge and insights gained from past experiences, both successes and failures, to inform and improve future endeavors. It is a fundamental practice in project management, organizational learning, and continuous improvement.
PurposeThe primary purpose of Lessons Learned is to promote learning from past actions, events, or projects. It aims to avoid repeating mistakes, replicate successful strategies, enhance decision-making, and foster a culture of continuous improvement within an organization or project team.
Key ElementsData Collection: Gathering data on project activities, outcomes, challenges, and solutions.
Analysis: Evaluating the collected data to extract insights and identify key takeaways.
Documentation: Recording lessons in a structured format for easy retrieval and dissemination.
Sharing and Dissemination: Communicating lessons to relevant stakeholders to benefit future projects.
Actionable Recommendations: Providing specific recommendations and actions based on the lessons learned.
ImplementationThe Lessons Learned process typically involves regular reviews, meetings, or workshops at the conclusion of a project or phase. Team members and stakeholders share their experiences and insights, which are then documented, analyzed, and distributed to relevant parties.
Analysis– Evaluating the root causes of both successes and failures to understand underlying factors.
– Identifying patterns, trends, or recurring issues to develop preventive measures.
– Extracting actionable recommendations and best practices for future projects.
– Assessing the impact of lessons learned on decision-making and project outcomes.
Benefits– Improved Decision-Making: Informed decisions based on past experiences lead to better outcomes.
– Risk Mitigation: Identifying and addressing potential risks and challenges in advance.
– Efficiency: Avoiding redundant efforts and minimizing costly mistakes.
– Knowledge Sharing: Fostering a culture of knowledge sharing and organizational learning.
– Continuous Improvement: Encouraging ongoing refinement of processes and approaches.
Drawbacks– Resistance to Change: Some team members may resist incorporating lessons into their practices.
– Documentation Overload: Excessive documentation without clear value can be counterproductive.
– Lack of Follow-Through: Lessons may be acknowledged but not effectively implemented in future projects.
– Resource Intensive: The process requires time and effort to collect, analyze, and disseminate lessons effectively.
Use Cases– In project management, a construction company documents lessons from previous projects to improve safety protocols and avoid accidents on future sites.
– A software development team analyzes lessons learned to refine their development process and reduce post-release bugs.
– An educational institution uses lessons learned to enhance curriculum design and teaching methods based on student feedback.
Examples– An aerospace company learns from a failed rocket launch to refine its engineering and quality control processes for future missions.
– A healthcare organization uses lessons learned from past epidemics to develop a more effective response plan for the next public health crisis.
– A marketing agency compiles lessons from previous campaigns to optimize strategies for future clients.

Understanding lessons learned in project management

In project management, the lessons learned review is held at the completion of a project where team members discuss their positive and negative experiences.

Patti Armanini, a Quality Manager at Festo USA, stressed that the lessons learned review was also important for several other reasons.

In an interview with collaboration SaaS provider Smartsheet, she called on project managers to:

review past lessons learned to avoid making similar mistakes the next time around. But it is just as important to leverage the wins going forward, to help streamline the project, and to help remove impediments before they happen.

To that end, the most skilled project managers can tell the difference between processes that help a team and those that hurt it.

What’s more, they seek input from every project team member irrespective of rank or seniority level and, in this way, are able to utilize the lessons learned process as a team-building tool.

The five steps of lessons learned in project management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) outlines five distinct steps in its documentation of the lessons learned process. 

Step 1 – Identify

The process starts with the identification of lessons learned.

Many project teams complete surveys that assess their experiences or emotions with respect to categories such as communication, planning, resources, technical, design and build, testing, and implementation.

Step 2 – Document

Once lessons have been identified, they should be listed in a document with three columns: what the team has done well (successes), what the team has not done well (failures), and areas for improvement.

This must be a collaborative effort.

Step 3 – Analyze

The lessons learned are analyzed and a report is created for distribution to team members and other relevant project stakeholders.

This step is vital at any point of a project but is especially relevant at the midpoint as it allows subsequent phases to be improved. Feedback should be transformed into actionable improvements for future project teams.

Depending on the audience, the project team report may take several forms:

  • Detailed report – these are organized by key fields from the template mentioned in step two and include team member responses. 
  • Summary – these tend to be shorter briefs where findings are summarized and recommendations are made to correct them.
  • Findings – a summary of the issues found from the lessons learned review process, and
  • Recommendations – a higher level report where actions are recommended and those approved are documented and tracked until completion. When findings require a significant amount of resources to address, the approved action may become part of the project itself.

It is important that each recommendation for action makes sense to members of that audience.

In other words, it is meaningful or applicable? For executive-level decision-makers, the data in the report must also be converted into metrics that make sense to them. 

Step 4 – Store

The report is then stored away for use in future projects in a location that is freely accessible to all parties. Today, this can involve cloud storage.

Step 5 – Retrieve

To make information retrieval easier and more accurate, the project manager should assign keywords to each lessons learned review. 

For example, if one of the lessons pertained to scheduling more time for the results to be delivered, keywords such as deadline and phase two delivery could be assigned to the report.

Key takeaways

  • In project management, the lessons learned review is held at the completion of a project where team members discuss their positive and negative experiences.
  • Lessons are shared in a review session which usually occurs once the project has been completed, with any improvements or best practices incorporated into subsequent projects. The review also enables teams to streamline future projects, leverage wins to build team cohesion, and remove potential impediments.
  • According to the Project Management Institute, there are five steps to the lessons learned: identify, document, analyze, store, and retrieve. 

Key Highlights

  • Lessons Learned in Project Management: “Lessons learned” refers to the insights gained from the experiences of project team members during the course of a project. These lessons are discussed in a review session held once the project is completed. The goal is to identify areas for improvement and best practices that can be applied to future projects.
  • Importance of Lessons Learned Review: Patti Armanini, a Quality Manager at Festo USA, emphasizes the significance of the lessons learned review. She suggests that project managers should review past experiences to avoid repeating mistakes and leverage successes to enhance project efficiency and prevent obstacles.
  • Skilled Project Managers’ Approach: Proficient project managers differentiate between processes that benefit the team and those that hinder it. They seek input from all team members, regardless of their rank or seniority, utilizing the lessons learned process as a means of team-building.
  • Five Steps of Lessons Learned Process:
    • Step 1 – Identify: The process begins with identifying lessons learned. Teams often use surveys to assess experiences in categories like communication, planning, resources, technical aspects, design and build, testing, and implementation.
    • Step 2 – Document: Lessons are listed in a document with three columns: successes, failures, and areas for improvement. Collaboration is essential in this step.
    • Step 3 – Analyze: Analyzing the lessons learned leads to the creation of a report for team members and stakeholders. It is crucial for improving subsequent phases of the project.
    • Step 4 – Store: The report is stored for future reference, often using cloud storage for accessibility.
    • Step 5 – Retrieve: Keywords are assigned to each lessons learned review to aid in easy and accurate information retrieval.

Connected Analysis Frameworks

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework gives context to decision making and problem-solving by providing context and guiding an appropriate response. The five domains of the Cynefin Framework comprise obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic domains and disorder if a domain has not been determined at all.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

Personal SWOT Analysis

The SWOT analysis is commonly used as a strategic planning tool in business. However, it is also well suited for personal use in addressing a specific goal or problem. A personal SWOT analysis helps individuals identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Pareto Analysis

The Pareto Analysis is a statistical analysis used in business decision making that identifies a certain number of input factors that have the greatest impact on income. It is based on the similarly named Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the effect of something can be attributed to just 20% of the drivers.

Failure Mode And Effects Analysis

A failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a structured approach to identifying design failures in a product or process. Developed in the 1950s, the failure mode and effects analysis is one the earliest methodologies of its kind. It enables organizations to anticipate a range of potential failures during the design stage.

Blindspot Analysis

A Blindspot Analysis is a means of unearthing incorrect or outdated assumptions that can harm decision making in an organization. The term “blindspot analysis” was first coined by American economist Michael Porter. Porter argued that in business, outdated ideas or strategies had the potential to stifle modern ideas and prevent them from succeeding. Furthermore, decisions a business thought were made with care caused projects to fail because major factors had not been duly considered.

Comparable Company Analysis

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A cost-benefit analysis is a process a business can use to analyze decisions according to the costs associated with making that decision. For a cost analysis to be effective it’s important to articulate the project in the simplest terms possible, identify the costs, determine the benefits of project implementation, assess the alternatives.

Agile Business Analysis

Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

SOAR Analysis

A SOAR analysis is a technique that helps businesses at a strategic planning level to: Focus on what they are doing right. Determine which skills could be enhanced. Understand the desires and motivations of their stakeholders.

STEEPLE Analysis

The STEEPLE analysis is a variation of the STEEP analysis. Where the step analysis comprises socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political factors as the base of the analysis. The STEEPLE analysis adds other two factors such as Legal and Ethical.

Pestel Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

DESTEP Analysis

A DESTEP analysis is a framework used by businesses to understand their external environment and the issues which may impact them. The DESTEP analysis is an extension of the popular PEST analysis created by Harvard Business School professor Francis J. Aguilar. The DESTEP analysis groups external factors into six categories: demographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological, and political.

Paired Comparison Analysis

A paired comparison analysis is used to rate or rank options where evaluation criteria are subjective by nature. The analysis is particularly useful when there is a lack of clear priorities or objective data to base decisions on. A paired comparison analysis evaluates a range of options by comparing them against each other.

Related Strategy Concepts: Go-To-Market StrategyMarketing StrategyBusiness ModelsTech Business ModelsJobs-To-Be DoneDesign ThinkingLean Startup CanvasValue ChainValue Proposition CanvasBalanced ScorecardBusiness Model CanvasSWOT AnalysisGrowth HackingBundlingUnbundlingBootstrappingVenture CapitalPorter’s Five ForcesPorter’s Generic StrategiesPorter’s Five ForcesPESTEL AnalysisSWOTPorter’s Diamond ModelAnsoffTechnology Adoption CurveTOWSSOARBalanced ScorecardOKRAgile MethodologyValue PropositionVTDF FrameworkBCG MatrixGE McKinsey MatrixKotter’s 8-Step Change Model.

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