Thursday, 24 September 2015

Project Lessons Learnt - remembering the past to influence the future

In this post I want to discuss the topic of Lessons Learnt within Projects. In football (soccer), if a goalkeeper lets a goal in through his legs, best that he learns from this for the next match. Or as the philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Projects - Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
I want to break down this topic into 3 areas:
  • Organisational Lessons Learnt (learnings from other Projects)
  • Project Team Lessons Learnt
  • Personal Lessons Learnt

Organisational Lessons Learnt

The principle here is that while initiating a new project, the Project Manager refers to a database of previous lessons learnt in the organisation for points to build into the plan or risks to consider.

I have come across this concept a couple of times as a consultant Project Manager but have struggled to gain useful insights from the database as:
  • it is difficult to find relevant lessons
  • the lessons are not written in a way to assist a new recipient
I don't have any particularly magic answers here but if I can find a similar project in the database (e.g. dealing with the same technology stack) and the Project Manager is still in the organisation, I will make contact and have a discussion about the previous project(s) and learning points as I am more likely to get some useful insights.

Project Team Lessons Learnt

PRINCE2 speaks of having a lessons learnt log and formally updated this at various points in the Project life cycle. My approach is to have a blank notepad file with a link on my desktop which allows me to quickly update with some pointers / thoughts as I come across them during the project.

During the project close-down phase you should organise a lessons learnt meeting but I recommend that in advance of this meeting you issue out a preparation sheet for some private contemplation by each participant in advance of the meeting. My approach is to:
  • list some key information about the project performance in terms of progress against plan etc
  • have life-cycle sections for focusing thought (for example in a waterfall system development project this might be analysis, design, development, SIT, UAT, implementation etc). I always have additional sections for management and teamwork.
  • ask the team member to list a maximum of 3 positive and 3 negative lessons per life-cycle section i.e. things that went well that should be repeated and things that went less well that we should do differently next time. 
Sometimes lessons learnt meetings can be very cathartic to get rid of team angst but in terms of capturing something which can be practically applied in the next project, pretty useless. I always try and focus the meeting on what could a new project team pick up and apply from this project and the preparation sheets can help focus the meeting appropriately. Gather up the sheets and your own notes (having a separate scribe can be useful) and try and distil this into something which can usefully be applied.

The meeting can also identify some consensus on individuals who have gone beyond their normal role is helping the deliver the project. This information can be used from a simple thank you to something more substantive whether a reward handed out at the project celebration event or input into the organisational HR processes.

Personal Lessons Learnt

Whether part of your team lessons learnt or separately, you should consider what went well and what you would do differently as a Project Manager next time. Try and get some honest feedback from the team and stakeholders on your performance and how people perceived you because it is often different from what you might think. While it can be challenging to implement changes at an organisational and/or project team level it is a lot easier to implement changes at a personal level so make sure you do! 

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