Do we really learn from our project successes or errors?

My basic induction into the world of training and development included a lot of work around identifying learning and ensuring that this is applied back in the workplace by trainees on courses.  

I try and link everything we do on project management courses back to learning; back to the place of work.

As a follower of sport I keep hearing coaches say things like:

“we are learning from our mistakes” or, “despite losing, we learnt a lot for our next game”

But, and it’s a big but..are people and are organisations really learning from their successes and their mistakes in the project management world? My answer; I think not as well as they should be. What is the evidence for this?

1. I get people to list out their project management problems on our courses. The same problems come through course after course – no company learning!

2. There is lots of guidance/education on line –free and of course training to ensure projects are delivered effectively. Look at the many (really good) blog postings that advocate the best 7 ways to deliver your project (yes, I have written these as well!). Or the 5 key things you must do to…There is nothing wrong with them – quite the reverse. The issue is that these articles all make similar points as to what needs doing to achieve ‘project success’

3. At conferences I hear speakers talk about project management problems and the route to project success (yes, I have done it…) and they are all similar lessons (even similar to 2 above)

Jim Kirkpatrick in an article points to some research by Bersin Associates who said that “as much as 70% of learning occurs on the job…” If as much as 70% of learning takes place on the job (during projects) then project managers and project sponsors should be spending time teasing out that learning and using this to help develop knowledge and skills of their team members and themselves.

However, I feel this is not strong enough. We need a bridge from this approach to a more structured organisational approach – saving much valuable time and money. Here are a few suggestions for making learning stick and becoming a more valuable commodity:

I. Link strategic projects – having someone facilitate ‘learning events’ with project managers and project sponsors from all strategic projects. Hold thereafter on a monthly basis. The focus should be learning but and could link to some of the technical aspects of project management –learning!

II. End of stage reviews (gate way or stage gate reviews). These should be co-ordinated via your PMO and learning should be high on the agenda. Before any large or high risk or strategic projects are started the PMO should brief the project manager and project team members about the learning aspects of previous projects

III. Cost the learning – involve your finance team and cost different aspects of project management:

• that change added another 2 weeks to the project and cost £15,000 in extra project resources. It was actually out of scope

• we did not allow sufficient time for the funding application and lost a possible £150K of income

This approach really brings home the cost of learning

IV. Project Board – there should be standing item; learning on agendas. This may need to be added to any training for project sponsors and Boards you already undertake.

Many people complain to me and my Project Agency colleagues that there is not enough time or sufficient resources etc. But, if companies identified and really used learning effectively then maybe:

• current projects would be delivered more effectively

• more projects would be delivered

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3 Responses to Do we really learn from our project successes or errors?

  1. Ron – I quite agree that organisations could learn better.
    I have seen post-implementation reviews come up with the same lessons again and again (build contingency into plans; take more time and care to gather requirements; don’t go live without full sign off/back-out plans/user training, etc.), but I have seen even more examples where post-implementation reviews weren’t carried out at all because: the project was too small / too simple; finished too long ago/hasn’t finished yet; I don’t have the time; the project team has all left the company; nothing happens with Lessons Learned anyway; I don’t think it’s worth the effort (delete as applicable).
    However I think the problems lie not only with _identifying_ the lessons, but also in what to _do_ with the lessons that have been identified to embed the learning into the organisation.
    I think the PMO can help here, and I like your idea of costing lessons, as I think this catches people’s attention.
    Perhaps one way to do it is to make a review of the Lessons Learned database mandatory at the Business Case preparation stage, and to pre-load the Risk Register template with the risk of repeating mistakes made on previous projects – the mitigation for which would be to review the Lessons Learned database for things to consider (and again the PMO can help here). What do you think?

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Thanks for this Ken.

      I think lessons learned is an area where companies fall well short. I see so many people really busy but maybe they could take a few short cuts by looking at the project plans or documentation of a project similar in nature of even parallel with one – anything to cut some time and some money. The ££ is where the key is – linking the process to cost savings!

      Thanks Ken, appreciate the comments.


  2. Pingback: Lessons Learned – but are they Really? | Brilliant Baselines

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