The Challenge of Project Management Lessons Learned


So how successful are current methods?

Much is written about the need to do ‘Lessons Learned‘ on projects.

Typically it is confined to a single meeting or similar to discuss the items that are worthy of capture under this heading.

There is often little, or even nil discussion about how ‘we’ in business actually make use of this information, in other words, make sure that at least the negative side of what is uncovered does not happen on future projects.

The challenge is that even if you attempt to do this, it is a very difficult thing to do in any business of any size.


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One great example of the challenge – over decades:

Let me share one example as evidence of this. Some years ago, I was present at an all-day event organised by a mainstream UK Government department that makes major equipment procurement (in the billions of £ annually), attended by hundreds of people.  The session was looking at the question of how could Industry and Government avoid the costly lessons of the past.

The Chief of Procurement for the whole department gave a keynote at the start of the day.  It was very brief and to the point. The department had started a ‘Learning from Experience Cell’ decades before, following a disastrous procurement project at that time.  Decades later, the only thing they had really learned, he said, was how difficult it is to transfer learning from past projects to future project teams – not a message that should be ignored lightly. He then stood up and left.

Another example: is the challenge to be honest with ourselves

Another example was a disastrous large-scale project where 27 people attended an all-day session on lessons learned. The project had threatened the very existence of the owning organisation. We were there too.

As is common, they broke into groups and captured their thoughts on flip-charts. When we collected them all together, one thing was clear. Of the many dozens of items captured, not one of them referred to an issue caused by the organisation itself. Remarkable. We highlighted this, and the most senior person in the room said very firmly “Move on!”. We tried our hardest to highlight what was happening but it fell on totally deaf ears. Eventually, we wished them all the best and said we were not comfortable continuing with what was happening.

Often it is a challenge for people to be totally objective (and yes, honest too) about the real root cause of issues.

So what does work?

Real Learning of lessons, i.e. transferring lessons so that future teams actually do take advantage of this experience and information, is a task and challenge that most organisations largely avoid.

It is also discussed far too infrequently on PM blogs and similar.

This new post discusses real ways to learn project management lessons.

It would be very interesting to hear if anyone has any great ideas or experiences that have really ‘worked’ in the past.

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1 Comment

  1. Clement on November 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    Embedding lessons learned is a challenge in type, in particular across larger oganizations. In a previous role, setting up a knowledge management platform, encouraging contributions from the teams and interactive reviews worked.

    Agreed, listing down key bullets and trying to retrofit those in ‘standard project checklist’ is not effective, from experience. Better to find ways to:

    a) Capture the information succinctly in a central knowledge-sharing hub;
    b) Follow up this with interactive sessions, teach-backs etc. to provide context and help apply the learnings more broadly.

    Cléme t

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