How to really learn project management lessons

Ways to transfer and share lessons successfully:

You hear the expression “lessons learned” all the time, but what does it mean?  Sadly, too often it means a single meeting, followed by the publication of a set of minutes, capturing the ‘lessons learned’. Job done ! Really?

Actually ‘learning’ from lessons is really hard. This post provides the basis of doing this more successfully.

So let’s look at the challenges when we do this and some better ideas:

It is far less fashionable now, but in the early days of our business we were often engaged to run lessons-learned exercises, usually on an unhappy project.   That teaches you a lot, but it teaches you more about human behaviour (¹) than actual projects.

It’s like the horrid analogy about turkeys and Christmas. Usually we are expecting the same people who were responsible for delivering the project to sit back and discuss, openly and objectively, what did not go well (or worse), and most importantly the causes of issues.  Optimistic?  Realistic? (¹)

There are other challenges too:

  • Getting people to open up, and we have to be frank now, getting people to be honest about difficult issues (if people feel responsible for aspects of the project that were pretty unsuccessful). Also, if the culture of the organisation actually discourages this, the information that comes from this can be poor or even misleading.
  • Getting your hands on real data about the project can be a real issue – organisations are very good at sanitising data on projects well before this stage.
  • Then, we have to do the really hard thing – trying to ensure that lessons learned are embedded into what we do!

So, if we agree with the above, let’s look at what organisations do with what comes from these sessions?

What does not work? (or achieves very little)

  • Making this information available on intranets or equivalent. It is woefully optimistic to expect busy people to have the time, or even be inclined to read this information (or even know it exists).
  • Emailing it to project managers – for the same reasons as above.
  • Adding it to checklists or risk checklists for projects (may seem logical, but it can be impossibly hard to translate the actual lesson into something that is generically applicable).

So what works much better?

Rule number #1 is always: this kind of information must be shared, whenever possible, in an interactive manner, avoiding the risks (²) of one-way forms of communication as much as possible.  For example.

  1. Lessons learned, that are carefully chosen and expressed, could be shared with project management communities through periodic interactive events (perhaps quarterly) that are aimed at both spreading good practice and learning from the past.
  2. The above could be supported by business (social) networks, however relying on this as your primary tool is highly likely to fail unless it is part of a structured set of actions and objectives at the individual (and probably team) level.
  3. If we have formal Governance processes, some of what comes from Lessons Learned could be added to these.
  4. Building selected lessons into any training and development programmes for project managers and others.

Learning organisations

The above are just a few examples of a whole concept about how and why organisations sometimes learn, and often don’t.  It’s called the Learning organisation and although few businesses commit to do what it involves, it is not hard to understand. Our interpretation on this includes:

  1. Organisations must commit time inside the business calendar (not in people’s lunch hour) to business learning, for example as in #1 above.
  2. Learning organisations develop communities, where interaction around learning is resourced, encouraged and facilitated.
  3. Individual and organisational learning (e.g. lessons learned) must be formally connected to the organisations mechanisms for doing business (e.g. processes etc).
  4. They invest in knowledge management structures and facilities.  This can be a powerful tool to have but when done well is worlds apart from having a series of bullet points from past lessons learned meetings.


  1. Learning lessons is hard and is likely to fail if we don’t recognise the challenges, at all stages.
  2. Many (possibly even most) organisations are not Learning Organisations.
  3. To have a culture to learn, we must be able to be open about the causes of issues, together with the desire and the mechanisms to continuously improve what we do.


  1. I was once retained by a major business to facilitate a lessons learned ‘day’ on a disastrous major project. 27 people assembled for the day. Towards the end of the day, a long list of issues was agreed by the group, every one of which was caused by people other than the 27 in the room, when it was clear their own decisions had been the biggest cause of issues. It was so extreme, that when my attempts to bring any kind of realism and objectivity were dismissed by the group, I declined to continue to support them, due to what I had heard, and wished them well with their future projects. What I heard on that day was not an isolated case.
  2. Events will be most effective if they can be face-to-face – if this is not possible they must be interactive at least – to ensure participation and to minimise the communication risk that always comes with one-way communication.

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