As individuals we talk about not repeating our mistakes, only all too often to find ourselves doing the same all over again. When we find ourselves in those patterns, it’s helpful to do some analysis: Is this personality driven? Do I need to “un-learn” behaviors that aren’t serving me well? Am I creating the same problems unwittingly or on purpose? To break out of a cycle of fail-repeat-fail, we must be purposeful about recognizing the mistake, understanding its cause and being deliberate about enacting change.
Healthy organizations and teams are no different. Repeating poor decisions is an extremely costly risk to organizations. Successful organizations thrive on making the best-informed decisions, and a key driver to these decisions is not repeating the poor decisions or actions taken in the past. The process of gathering and applying historical information to make better informed decisions is known as applying lessons learned.
In today’s world, at the end of any major project, many organizations conduct a ‘lessons learned’ activity by gathering the project team, reflecting on their experiences throughout the project phases and documenting the things that could’ve been done differently. This great exercise, however, often ends up with a document that gets buried six feet under never to see light again. Based on my personal experiences, these organizations understand the importance of learning from the past projects, by implementing successes and avoiding past failures. However, they treat this activity as a formality, like a box on the project plan that needs to be checked off and miss its true power to meaningfully benefit future projects.
Why does this happen? Often, we have great ideas but no tools to execute them. Organizations often lack standards for scheduling, gathering, discussing, analyzing and communicating the valuable knowledge gained through the journey of various projects. This results in frustration, which causes a lack of motivation and participation from the project team, eventually causing relearning the lessons time and again.
Incorporating Lessons Learned throughout the Project Lifecycle
My personal recommendation is to make assessing lessons learned a required phase at each step of the project lifecycle, whether it’s project initiation, planning, executing or closing. Building this into each stage of the project lifecycle cements ongoing learning and improvement as part of the project team culture, weaving it into the fabric of the process in a way that makes it much harder to ignore or forget. Of course, it also positions the team for real-time, iterative improvements that can significantly impact the project’s timeline, cost and other success measures.
The second step is to create questionnaires that will help trigger these conversations in constructive ways. Structuring these conversations in a predictable way can take emotion out of discussions that can otherwise easily become laden with guilt, blame or regret. Sample questions might include:
- What went well?
- What specific factors contributed to those successes?
- Where did we run into roadblocks?
- Knowing what we know now, is there anything we would do differently?
Finally, design a standard template to capture and share the findings in a centralized, easily accessible location. These templates should be used to capture successes, not just to celebrate them, but to also define best practices that could apply to future projects. Similarly, capture areas of improvements, things that did not go so well with the last phase, understanding the origination of the issue, its impact and methods to minimize it from happening in the future phases of this project or other projects. These successes, failures and methods to improve them could all be captured on a dashboard that stays visible throughout the project phases. You could make it more intuitive by adding likes, votes, comments, feedback and other features to these templates to engage the audience. These templates will be useful for project planning and process improvements, thereby helping to minimize the past mistakes. Documenting all this and building a repository that you can have instant access to will go a long way for successful project execution.
Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing and managing projects. They are like doctors who diagnose problems and define a treatment for the patient’s recovery. They are given the authority to lead projects, expected to deliver them within a specified timeframe and budget while keeping the stakeholders happy. Project managers keep all the information flowing seamlessly. They understand the technical know-how and delegate tasks to keep the project moving forward. Their responsibilities should also include conducting these lessons learned sessions after each phase of the project. They should build tools, leverage existing templates and encourage team participation in such lessons learned sessions. Like Henry Ford once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Each failure must be recorded, discussed and avoided in future. To achieve success, it is crucial to start treating these learnings with urgency and give this the importance it deserves.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
Common Lessons Learned
Let’s talk about a few specific lessons we can all relate with. The first situation that we encounter often is the need to have a better schedule wherein more time is spent on gathering and finalizing requirements. This lesson -- despite being captured -- keeps repeating because we believe in the idea of action being better than planning. Projects are driven by dates rather than understanding the scope of the work involved or understanding that there could be an inability to define requirements, including getting inputs from knowledgeable, decision-empowered super users. When such challenges are not addressed and dates drive requirements, then massive scope creep can occur during the later phases of the project timeline causing chaos and unsustainability.
Another key lesson often learned yet not applied consistently is the importance of clear accountability. A big reason for that is because accountability is often equated with blame or having to do a lot of work. Successful projects identify accountabilities in the early stages of the project plan. Resources are identified at kick off, and commitments are made and documented. The biggest challenge here emerges when everyone on the project team is not working towards the same goal. There are some resources (team members) who recognize accountability and go the extra mile to get things done. On the other hand, there are often other resources with less positive work ethics who avoid taking up any work. Hence, a highly motivated team of like-minded individuals with centered focus is crucial to the success of a project. This again is another lesson that tends to repeat itself if not addressed. As the saying goes: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
One of my favorites that you probably hear all the time is the ‘too busy for lessons learned’ excuse. A quick hour discussion after each project phase to discuss the lessons learned and review what was learned earlier will not break that ‘too busy schedule.’ In fact, it might end up saving time in the long run. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Similarly, an hour spent to talk through the experiences is like sharpening your axe. You are never too busy to improve yourself.
In today’s world, the only thing constant is change. Organizations transform literally overnight to remain competitive. They often need to implement enterprise-wide changes that affect processes, products and people. Change is always difficult and is often met with a lot of resistance. Hence it is extremely important to have a clear vision, a systematic approach to manage major changes and knowledge management systems that can be used to enter and retrieve lessons learned. As organizations work toward their goals by implementing changes or through continuous improvement, the importance of lessons learned and applying them is a key to the organizational success.
A bruise is a lesson, and each lesson makes us better. We never should forget our bruises.