Importance of Lessons Learned in Project Management

Without lessons learned, Newton’s physics may not have superseded Aristotle’s physics
Without Newton’s physics, Einstein may not have theorized on the curvature of time and space
Without the theory on the curvature of time and space, we may never have time travel
Without time travel, I may never go back in time to pack my teddy bear before going away to camp.
Therefore, conduct your lessons learned so no child is sent off to camp without a teddy bear!!

Lessons learned is a theory, or conclusion, based on evidence at a given time and describes what went wrong (as well as what went right) throughout the lifecycle of a project. Although it’s completed during the project closeout process, it should occur during the entire project lifecycle to ensure all information is captured and documented.

Consequences of not having a project review of lessons learned are the increased likelihood of repeating actions that might have caused:

  • Project failures
  • Budget overruns
  • Scope creep
  • Reduced quality from expectations
  • Missed scheduled deadline

Lessons learned provide their greatest value when they are (a) documented, (b) communicated, (c) archived, and (d) fluid and adaptable to allow evolved conclusions. Documentation of lessons learned should include naming the issue, a brief description of the problem or success, the impact on the project (e.g. time, cost, scope, quality, schedule), and the process improvement recommendations (lessons learned).

Next, it’s important to communicate these lessons to the project stakeholders. The stakeholders should be a part of the project review so it’s a logical step to communicate lessons learned to them. You should also archive and communicate this project’s lessons learned to all project managers either through the Project Management Office (PMO) or, in the absence of a PMO, previously approved means of Project Management collaboration and communication.

Finally, lessons learned needs to be open to the idea that alternative conclusions exist. Remember, our lessons learned are based on the best information available at the time of the conclusion. However, with time and experience, our knowledge and interpretation of the data might change.

Let me illustrate this with a small sample of superseded, or obsolete, scientific theories:

  1. Aristotelian physics – superseded by Newton’s physics
  2. Flat Earth theory – widely accepted theory though Aristotle and Aquinas believed the earth to be round
  3. Continental drift – improved upon by plate tectonics
  4. Newtonian gravity – superseded by general relativity
  5. Static Universe – evaporated after the discovery by Edwin Hubble that the universe is expanding.
  6. Classical physics – superseded by relativistic physics and quantum physics.

Note that I did not state that the original theories were wrong: data was analyzed; conclusions were drawn, communicated, and widely accepted at the time and archived for others to learn from. Fortunately, the scientific community considers that alternative conclusions exist and even strives to falsify existing theories.

While we, as project managers, do not strive to disprove existing lessons learned, we must be open to learn from prior lessons learned, and we must be open to evolve these conclusions as our knowledge and experiences evolve. In order to do so, we must make it a practice to take the time to analyze Lessons Learned.

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