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Learning From Lessons Learned
By Susan Peterson

Every part of the planet has its challenges with the ravages of nature. Whether it be flood, fire, severe storms, or other disasters, each human response effort to these events is a project. In some situations responses have been planned well in advance of an actual disaster. However, others are hastily developed under pressure in crisis mode. Regardless of the level of planning, all such responses include “after the fact” scrutiny from a variety of sources. This article focuses on “lessons learned” an effective process rather than only a hunt for the guilty followed by punishment.

“We must have done something right.”

So often the practice of reviewing a project after its closure dwells only on those things that went wrong. While organizations want to utilize best practices in their functional operations, they often do not identify best practices that are employed in managing projects. Some areas where effective project management techniques can be identified include addressing risks proactively, sharing resources across projects, outsourcing management, and vendor analysis. For example, capturing how resources were shared by merging schedules of two projects and adjusting deliverables is an invaluable practice that can be reused for virtually any future project. Correlating vendor performance with specific tangible deliverables is another technique that can benefit a wide variety of upcoming projects. In any case the first emphasis in assessing lessons learned should be to highlight the practices that were effective and to determine how those practices can be communicated to other project managers and can be documented for ready access in the future.

“When all else fails, blame the project manager.”

It is true that responsibility for addressing project problems rests with the project manager. However, in some situations the project manager is doomed to failure by causes beyond his/her control. While there are any number of project problem causes, let’s focus on those caused by an organization’s project culture and attitude. There are far too many organizations that believe that there is no such thing as a “successful” project. The prevailing attitude is that projects never accomplish anything, always run over budget, and never finish on time. Yet the causes often are rooted in the organization and its actions. If projects do not have documented and approved goals, it is impossible to know if they achieve success. If they are funded before they are planned, then the budgets are meaningless. Likewise, a project that has a completion date set before it is planned can seldom successfully meet that date. The “lesson to be learned” in this type of situation is that the organization must assess what it needs to do in order to provide and environment where projects have a “fighting chance” to succeed. If an organization does not support effective project management methodology, then the majority of its projects will fail.

“No pain, no gain.”

Even if lessons learned from project problems and mistakes are well documented, the real benefit is derived only if the true causes are proactively addressed. Instead, many organizations wait for the next project to experience the same problems before recognizing that aggressive action should have been taken well in advance. It takes tremendous strength and courage to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles, such as a lengthy sign off process, that can thwart effective and timely project management. Addressing the political aspects, such as lack of sponsor support or mid-project budget cuts, takes much perseverance to uncover and effectively identify means to keep these actions from occurring on future projects. The entire lessons learned process is wasted unless problem causes are eliminated or mitigated.

Our thoughts are with all of the people who have been impacted by the recent firestorms. It is a long process to deal with the many aspects of recovery. We can only hope that the lessons learned are effectively applied in advance of the next disaster that inevitably will occur.

© 2009 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at PMI – San Diego Chapter. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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