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From Lessons to Learn to Lessons Learned

At the end of many of my project management workshops, I discuss project or phase closing and the notions of post mortem and lessons learned.

I want the workshop participants to realise that a lesson is learned by a group or an organisation only once former behaviours have been replaced by new behaviours that reflect in a tangible way what has been learned. Having a document or a database with the title Lessons Learned, including a list of things learned in a project or a set of projects, does not change them magically into lessons learned, unless future behaviours prove otherwise.

I often explain the sad reality of so-called lessons learned systems, using as an example the Lessons Learned list developed by Futron for the NASA in 2001. I show to the workshop participants a summary of the findings on the Columbia shuttle disaster annotated with references to this list. The annotations demonstrate that not a single item of the Lessons Learned list is shown in the behaviours that resulted in this disaster. Nothing was learned!

In one of my recent workshops, one participating project manager came forward with this obvious observation (so obvious that it had evaded me, actually). He said that he lived the same phenomenon in his organisation. Their Lessons Learned experienced the same fate as those of the NASA, prior to 2003, when they lost the Columbia shuttle. He then said that maybe the problem was with the name we gave to those lists and documents. He said: “Our project post mortem documents do not include a list of Lessons Learned, but rather a list of Lessons to Learn. So maybe, if we want to send the right message, we should call these ‘lessons to learn’ instead, and then look at what should be done in our organisation to really integrate new behaviours, ensuring something has effectively changed for the better.”

I cannot agree more with this project manager. So if we want to ensure that significant lessons from projects are really learned and improve our project management processes and the delivery of our projects, we should talk of Lessons to Learn instead and then put in place mechanisms to change those into Lessons Learned.

What type of mechanisms are we talking about here? I had the privilege to work with an organisation that has such a mechanism, the telecom enterprise Microcell Connection in Montreal, Canada, now part of Rogers Communications. They considered any lesson learned in a list as a project to realise. They put together a continuous improvement program for their project management activities that included each Lesson Learned in their systematic project post mortems (done on all projects) as a continuous improvement element. This element had to be integrated into the overall project management practices, behaviours and supporting documentation, within a timeframe not to exceed (under normal conditions) six months after the acceptance of the project post mortem recommending the implementation of this Lesson Learned. And it worked very well.

So, you want real Lessons Learned?  Well, it’s easy. Just do like Microcell did. Turn each Lesson to Learn into a specific continuous improvement project, aimed at turning it into a Lesson Learned, something that will become part of your organisation’s best practices and behaviours. Changing a Lesson to Learn into a Lesson Learned is an organisational change and organisational changes will only happen if we take care of them…and taking care of them means delivering these changes as a project.