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Lessons Learned; Avoid the Oxymoron

We’ve all been there – you’ve just completed a significant project, you assemble the remaining members of the project team (those that are still sane), the sponsor (if one exists) and the other stakeholders (those that still like you) and you conduct a post-project review. You dutifully ask each participant to think back over the lifetime of the project (which sometimes feels like the lifetime of the participant) to elicit any useful information that could be applied to future similar projects. You capture these lessons “to be learned” in a document and archive the document (similar to the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie) knowing that it will never be seen by human eyes again.

So what went wrong? Here are just a few of the challenges with the traditional approaches to lessons learned:

  • Conducting an effective “lessons learned” session at the end of the project requires that participants have photographic memories or have logged “candidate” lessons throughout the project lifetime in preparation for closeout. Both are unlikely, so only a superficial collection of lessons is possible.
  • Document-centric approaches to capturing lessons discourages project teams from searching or reviewing this valuable information when planning projects. Even if the lessons learned documents are stored in a centralized document management system, the manual effort of opening and reviewing individual documents is a barrier to their use.
  • Lessons are in many ways like risk events – if they are too general, too stale, or non-actionable, then their value (and credibility in the lessons learned process) is lost.

So what can you do to improve this situation?

  • Make it extremely easy for people to submit lessons learned and incent them to submit them over the lifetime of the project. Perhaps you can spare 5-10 minutes at every second project status meeting to capture these lessons.
  • Take a data-centric approach to lessons learned instead of a document-centric one – setup a simple online process to capture or search for lessons as individual items. Make sure that submitted lessons can be tagged with such useful information as the project description, the date of the lesson, the person that submitted it, and key words to locate them.
  • Institute a regular scrubbing process to weed out obsolete or irrelevant lessons from the lessons repository and to add clarification or key words for the valid or useful ones.
  • Add a “usefulness” flag to the lessons items (similar to the “Did you find this solution useful?” query that most product support organizations use on their online support sites) to identify the lessons that have been the most valuable and to help weed out the ones that are not that useful.

Like any other improvement initiative, applying these recommendations will take time, but as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I invite your feedback and you can reach me at [email protected]. Our website is (