Rubbish In Rubbish Out - Why 'lessons learned' processes must change

by Martin Paver, CEO of Projecting Success / 10/23/2017 2:41:46 PM

I have spent months collating a dataset of nearly 10,000 lessons identified and have developed a number of insights that I would like to share with readers over the coming months. The experience from project delivery represents a significant amount of investment and intellectual property that, in my experience, most organisations are struggling to leverage.

One of the core challenges is the quality of the material that organisations spend money identifying, harvesting and collating. I’ve included a few real world examples below:   

  • From initiation, apply a programme change management methodology
  • Risks should be monitored and included in project reporting and risk management documents updated as required.
  • Make a final sanction decision in the light of facts regarding the project risks and their mitigation
  • Ensure detailed design is sufficiently mature before moving in to construction.
  • Improve governance and assurance at the beginning of the project:
  • Be clearer/realistic about what will be achievable, manage expectations.
  • The team worked well together, gelled early and had a clear focus & clear priorities

The lessons learned process is degenerating into a mechanistic tick box process that should either be transformed or abandoned. I acknowledge that it can provide an opportunity for cathartic internal reflection and the benefits of this should not be underestimated, but this process doesn’t necessarily translate into an effective foundation for delivery productivity improvement.

If you had the unenviable task of having to search through a dataset of lessons learned, what would you actually do with the lessons identified above? In my experience, project and programme managers tend to be qualified and have a good grasp of the basics.

Reiterating what they already know doesn’t constitute it a lesson learned, it is knowledge already known but reformulated with different words. As a result, project managers tend to skip through them and the inherent value of the experience gets lost.

It has surprised me why our profession doesn’t take a systems approach to managing this experience. Understanding what we want to do with this experience, how it will be captured, managed and exploited. I’ve done a lot of work exploring this and have concluded that current systems are rarely fit for purpose.

The first issue to consider is the type of lesson. The majority of lessons that I have seen, and certainly those with greatest impact, concern the effective implementation of the P3M body of knowledge.

We all know what needs to be done to deliver a project but life often gets in the way; clients change their priorities, bosses move on and new people have a different way of working, team members leave at short notice and fires flare up.

It’s a constant struggle of priorities and we make decisions based upon the issues in front of us. We often ignore the rich seam of evidence of projects that have gone before that may help to shape these priorities.

When we see a lesson that recommends improving governance, what do most people do with it? The lesson often isn’t accompanied with a start and end position, so it is difficult to qualify what ‘improve’ means. Many lessons don’t explain why governance didn’t work, e.g. was it availability of key people, conflicts of interest etc. Without understanding the rationale for what led to the failure the project manager has a challenge in working out how to apply this to their situation.

Time and resources are usually a scarce commodity on a project so all activities need to be prioritised against each other. This leads to compromises being made on the level of rigour given to each element of project management.

However, if the project manager has an understanding of the impact that lessons had on earlier projects then it may help to influence the depth of analysis in targeting areas. They are able to supplement their instinctive decision making with hard evidence.

Technical and implementation lessons need to be managed in a different way. This will be very organisation specific. Some organisations codify technical lessons in work instructions and process. NASA collates them in a database of lessons learned, supplemented by communities of practice and associated improvement action.

Whatever solution you choose, it needs to be tailored to the specific demands of your business. Choosing a tool is the easy part, the challenge is creating the culture of learning, promoting an enquiring mind, providing assistance to peers all within a context of senior level support. 

Consideration also needs to be given to what the organisation is striving to achieve from the analysis at a portfolio level. Campaigns may be initiated to address specific project management themes where there is a mounting body of evidence that lessons keep repeating and the impact of those lessons cannot be ignored.

But without the right data and hard evidence it is often difficult to create the business case for change; its also hard to take the project teams on the journey with you when they are probably already suffering change fatigue and fearful of new initiatives that divert attention from delivery.

Without evidence, its easier to keep doing what has always been done, almost as if the corporate memory is reset after each project failure. How many times have you seen this happen?

I know that the knowledge managers out there will be shouting from the hilltops that the answer lies in connecting people and communities of practice. But as a practitioner at the sharp end of delivery I don’t subscribe to this view.

For me, the answer lies in the data. Creating the hard evidence to justify change and bringing the community with us. I agree that knowledge management is part of the answer, but its certainly not the silver bullet that we may be led to believe.

Its worth taking a step back and looking at the number of worthwhile, but abandoned knowledge based initiatives. They always come under pressure when money is tight and when the evidence isn’t tangible, they struggle to compete against other strategic priorities.   

The tools, understanding and methods exist to transform how organisations leverage the past. Is it time for our profession to make a difference on what is truly a wicked problem?   

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