How to get value from lessons learnt

Lessons learnt tips

If you ask project teams and senior managers the question as to whether there is value in lessons learnt you would get a very mixed response. Often they are just lip service at the end of the project, something that the team have been told to do, but result in wasted time and no real benefit. So how can you go about getting value from lessons learnt?

We have pulled together our top tips on lessons learnt (often called retrospectives in the Agile world).

Clearly there is a very big difference between small projects with a team of 5 versus major global implementation programmes with multiple teams. With this in mind, some of the tips will apply to smaller projects or individual teams within a larger programme. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here, but a set of suggestions that might help you gain more value from your lessons learnt.

1. Do them regularly

At the end of every project stage, phase of development, key deliverable, iteration or Sprint (if you are Agile) ask the questions:

  • What worked well for us?
  • What did not work well for us?
  • What actions can we take to improve our process going forward?

By doing this regularly you will identify improvements and changes that can be implemented immediately in the next stage of the project. It’s worth noting that the positives make just as good lessons learnt as the negatives.

2. Short and focused

Keeping the lessons learnt short and focused helps the team feel like they are less of a drain on their day and more of an energising, motivational session ahead of the next stint of work. We would recommend no more than 30 minutes. Look at what did and didn’t work well. Don’t get caught up in trying to solve all the problems during this session.

If you feel that there is too much to get through in 30 minutes you can ask the team, stakeholders and management teams to complete a quick set of questions before the meeting. The responses can be collated and grouped into logical sets leading to a more efficient session.

3. Involve the whole team

Each session must be facilitated well and ensure that every member of the team contributes. Everyone should leave with a clear set of actions or changes that they are able to commit to for the next stage of work. It can also be beneficial to include people who are not members of the team, such as project managers or resources from similar projects. They may bring a different viewpoint and may also take away learnings for their own projects.

4. No blame

Each session should strictly adhere to a no-blame culture. The facilitator can have a tough job with this one, but absolutely needs to stop any finger pointing. Blaming others has a very negative impact on the session and the team.  The facilitator can help the team focus on the why and what rather than the who by directing the conversation through questions.

5. Share across projects or teams

Consider holding a monthly meeting for project managers across multiple projects to share lessons learnt. If you are running a large programme you might do the same thing for the team leads from each team. If focused and facilitated well this type of meeting is likely to generate useful discussion and result in increased efficiency and time saved.

6. Assign a champion for significant lessons

Assign significant lessons to a champion. The champion will be responsible for implementing the lesson into the organisation. The champion needs the right knowledge (technical or business) and drive to ensure the lesson is implemented. Examples of lessons might be change of process or procedures, technical changes or behavioural changes.

7. Senior leadership emphasis on learning

For lessons learnt to be consistently carried out and re-used, it is essential for senior leadership to buy-in to the process. This will mean finding the right lessons learnt process for your organisation. Without this buy-in lessons learnt will remain siloed and inconsistently approached, offering little value.

8. Easy access format

Lessons learnt will only be shared and referred to across projects and the organisation if they are in a really accessible format. A shared database that extends beyond the individual project can be useful. The most valuable way of recording lessons learnt in a database is to have clear criteria or fields that are searchable. If each lesson learnt is structured in the same way and has the same fields completed the usability is far greater than free-text fields with no structure. Information to include:

  • Project manager / business champion / contact
  • Date
  • Project type (business process change, IT)
  • Project name
  • Lesson description
  • Learnings or action taken.

To make the data more valuable and easy to search or filter you might request the following types of information be completed:

  • business department or function the lesson relates to
  • business process impacted by the lesson
  • technology or systems associated with the lesson
  • people or job roles impacted by the lesson

Some prefer the idea of ‘stories’ or case studies to a lessons learnt database. Positive and negative lessons learnt can be turned into ‘stories’ and can be incorporated in newsletters, internal communications or training for new team members or PMs.

Producing a long lessons learnt document for each project individually, stored in the project area is unlikely to deliver any benefit once the project has closed.

9. Make lessons learnt a precursor to starting a project

A really great suggestion that I have come across is to have lessons learnt a mandatory part of starting a project where sponsors or approvers require proof that lessons learnt have been consulted as part of pulling together a project start document or business case before they will convene to sign-off a project. This might be part of the project lifecycle or of individuals personal development plans.

Alternatives to this could be to:

  • include a checklist based on lessons learnt at various stages of the project. PMs would be required to complete the checklist and prove they a have consider everything that is on it.
  • include lessons learnt completion in a project audit process

10. Associate benefits

Associating business benefit to the outcomes of lessons learnt can be a fantastic way to get organisations to adopt the proposed changes. Some examples of benefits could be time savings, cost savings, standardisation of process, risk reduction, increased efficiencies or behavioural changes.

11. Prioritise the outcomes

Although almost everything that comes out of a lessons learnt session can be viewed as useful in some way the amount of information can be overwhelming, off-putting and simply too much to deal with. If this is the case consider prioritising and take action on only the top 5, or perhaps only those that impact the project in its next stage. Others may be worth inputting to the lessons learnt database or passing to business champions, but not relevant to the project immediately.

12. Proactively engage others

Where lessons learnt aren’t readily available take some time to engage senior management, other project managers or team members before starting up a project to learn about their past experiences.

13. Consider anonymous feedback

Whilst not quite in keeping with the open and honest, no blame culture lessons learnt should adhere to, it can be worth looking at anonymous feedback in particular situations. For example, where:

  • the project is going very badly, relations between team members are acrimonious or multiple teams within the project have conflicting views. Getting them all in a lessons learnt meeting will prove more damaging that good.
  • there is a known issue that keeps coming up time and again in lessons learnt that needs resolution. Perhaps there is a shortage of experienced resource because retention is an issue. An anonymous survey can help to get some clarity over why people are leaving.

Lessons learnt (done well) generates constant improvement in an organisation, prevents repetition of mistakes and be can be used to highlight positive outcomes and wins. This in turn increases the quality of delivery and chance of success and, on occasions, sparks new ideas and innovation.

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