Where Do Lessons Go?

December 13, 2009 by
Filed under: Project management, Quality 

A good part of a formal closing for any project is a discussion of lessons learned. An even better approach is to get the stakeholders together to gather these lessons, both good and bad, in the form of a comprehensive retrospective. Unfortunately, in most cases, these lessons learned would be more appropriately called “things we should learn but are doomed to identify as lessons again on our next project.”

Quite often, projects end in such a way that our preference is to simply move on to greener pastures, and the sooner we forget the pain we experienced, the better. Way over budget and schedule, long hours, frustrating bugs and in the end, a less-than-happy client. We go through the motions of griping about what went wrong, even might identify what we could do better.

Next project, many of these same issues often come up again. The problem is that few organizations have anyone that is consciously and conscientiously focusing on continuity across multiple projects, someone with a mandate to ensure that lessons learned are actually learned.

Without that role, it is highly unlikely that those lessons learned will result in changes of behaviour the next time around. Regardless of the good intentions, when the heat is on, we all have a tendency to revert to practices we are more familiar with, even if we have told ourselves that they might not be the most appropriate things to do. Those lessons learned remain in the room where they were expressed.

No wonder many retrospectives (or post-mortems, perhaps more appropriate for many) provide opportunities to get things off our chests, but not much of any lasting value. Let that happen a few times, and even that becomes weary – best to just get going on the next project or sprint, which is probably already behind.

If that role outside of projects isn’t owned by anyone, then at least everyone should know where to stash those lessons, should actually do so, and should consciously refer back to them at the start of the next cycle. In most shops, putting this in place and ensuring consistency is a lot tougher than just giving someone the hat to wear, even if on a part-time basis.

If there is an SEPG or PMO or Quality group around, you are pretty well there. Any or all of these should be capable of handling that mandate, and doing this is generally quite a bit more valuable than enforcing that a particular template be used.

Before you even consider capturing lessons learned, think first about how these lessons will find their way into future projects as positive, changed experiences. – JB

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