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What’s Wrong with Lessons Learned Sessions?
By Andrea Brockmeier

What’s wrong with lessons learned sessions done at the end of a project? If the sentiments of my project management training students are any indication, plenty.

The complaints are many and varied:

“They take too long and we don’t have time.”
“At that point, the project is over so people don’t really care anymore.”
“By the time we get to it, the people who worked on the project are no longer around.”

And, by far the most common compliant:

“We don’t have a good way to go back and look at previous project lessons learned to apply to future projects, so why bother?”

On the whole, my students don’t find lessons learned to be time well spent.

In many ways, I agree. Consider that you may stand more to gain by looking at what you should be doing more or less of within the project you’re currently working on than you do trying to capture ideas for the next project – whenever and whatever that is. In fact, I’d suggest that a little bit of time spent on a lessons learning exercise may be better than a lot of time spent on a lessons learned exercise.

One reason is that a project is, by definition, unique. That’s not just a text book definition; practically speaking there is always some element that is not going to be entirely the same next time. The processes used may be very much the same from project to project, but there is some variability around the people and/or the product that will be different. The exact combination of process, people, and product isn’t going to occur again.

I imagine that my students who don’t feel inspired to conduct a post-project lessons learned probably feel defeated at the outset. To answer the question, “What can we learn for next time?”, it seems necessary to qualify any answer with “Well, if everything is exactly like it was this time….”

So is it really a good use of organizational time, especially considering the effort? The work it takes to engage stakeholders in a lessons learned session feels a lot like the work it takes to engage stakeholders in a discussion about risks. Getting people to stop what they’re doing to talk about what has already happened (lessons learned), or what might happen (risks), is a hard sell when most people are doing all they can to keep their heads above water dealing with what is happening!

How about taking just a little bit of time to talk about what we are doing right now that’s working for us? That may not only be an easier sell, but the return may be greater. Without worrying about how we’re going to capture our thoughts so we can find and use them on the next project, we can simply share what’s working and not working for us currently. And then make sure we implement those ideas starting…now. That’s a much shorter walk to applied learning than archiving project experience somewhere to be dredged up at some unspecified point in the future on another project.

Lessons learned post-project still have their purpose, but we need to be fair to ourselves in terms of how we expect them to be used. Closure is important for many reasons and lessons learned sessions contribute significantly to that. It’s been my experience and that of most of my students, however, that the notion of a library of historical data built with volumes of past projects is a great idea but not one many people effectively operationalize.

This is the premise behind Agile retrospectives at the end of each sprint. It’s not uniquely Agile, however. Best practice in traditional project management includes closing phases, as well as projects, including lessons learned to be applied to the project in which one is already working. Even if a project doesn’t have phases, per se, milestones or deliverables can serve as triggers for taking stock of what is and isn’t serving the interests of the project. I just don’t see that it gets done that much, which is a missed opportunity.

We might do our projects and stakeholders a favor by modifying our words around the lessons learned exercise. Talking about it differently can enhance the appeal and therefore participation and ultimately value to the organization.

See if an invitation to a shorter, less formal, lessons learning exercise done in the middle of your current project doesn’t get a more enthusiastic response than you might expect from a lessons learned session at the end of your project.

Andrea Brockmeier is the Client Solutions Director of Project Management at at Watermark Learning, Inc. She began her project management career in the non-profit sector in Dallas where she developed and directed a community program for refugees. After returning to Minnesota, she spent over 10 years managing technical, operational, and financial projects. She also has many years of experience developing and leading technical project teams. Most recently, she has focused on curriculum development and training delivery of project management and influencing skills classes. Andrea holds a number of technical certifications and is certified as a Project Management Professional® by the Project Management Institute. You can read more from Andrea on her blog.

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