30 May 2022

Does your organisation lose out on learning?

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Does your organisation lose out on learning

The experience of running projects contains insights that ought be useful to organisations and individuals, yet very often this useful knowledge is not fully or effectively exploited.

Does your organisation learn all that it could from its delivery experience?

See if you recognise anything in the post below…

How can you tell your organisation is losing out on learning?

Here are six signs that your organisation is probably not learning as much from project delivery experience as it could, and what each sign reveals:

1. Your projects suffer from the same issues time and time again

…and repeatedly reinvent the wheel to resolve them.

If your organisation was learning from its experience, the same issue would not have to crop up very many times before remedial action was taken to reduce either the frequency of the issue occurring, the severity of the impact when it does occur, or both of these.

2. Your project sponsor thinks reviewing the lessons learned by previous projects is a waste of time

Instead, they want you to get stuck in to the ‘proper work’ of delivering the new project you have just been allocated to.

You are expected to work at speed on projects and get started as soon as possible – and ironically that need for project speed ends up slowing you down.

If an organisation is not prepared to invest time in learning from the past, then it must be prepared to repeat the mistakes of the past, and pay to make them again.

3. Nobody asks you to capture and share what you have learned from the project you are delivering

This may mean the organisation:

  • Has no system for handling lessons learned
  • does not value learning from experience, or
  • does not encourage a continuous improvement mindset.

4. Nobody else shares what they have learned from the project they are delivering

This could be because:

  • they don’t want to admit to any failures
  • they want to keep successful approaches for themselves
  • they don’t expect anyone to implement what they have learned, or
  • they don’t have a continuous improvement mindset…

5. Nobody asks “Have we done anything like this before? What did we learn from it?”.

When new projects are being discussed or kicked off, nobody looks for learning from the past.

This could be because the organisation does not value learning from experience, or does not encourage a continuous improvement mindset…

6. If you ask your portfolio or enterprise PMO to show you what has been learned by previous projects, they either don't have any, or they point you to a stack of project closure reports.

This probably means either that the organisation does not do any kind of learning, or the learning is not organised to maximise its re-use on other projects.

If you see any or all of the symptoms above, then your organisation could probably improve its performance by taking lessons learned more seriously, and by paying more attention to learning from experience.

Why your project teams don’t examine or evaluate their experience

Most project management frameworks recommend capturing lessons throughout the life of a project and taking action to apply those lessons to future projects or (preferably) the current project. But in our experience, this is often overlooked in the heat of delivery, and only remembered at the end of the project.

And once they are at the end of a project, how do most project teams FEEL?

Elated? Relieved? Exhausted? 

Do they feel like doing an admin-heavy lessons learned exercise?

Do they feel like volunteering ourselves for scrutiny and a blame-apportioning witch-hunt?

Often, the answer is No.

Compared to the excitement and ‘glamour’ of delivery, project closure (and lessons learned) simply isn’t ‘sexy’.

People make all sorts of excuses for why they don’t need to do  Lessons Learned exercise.

So lessons learned is generally quite low on the project manager’s priority list, and some project managers will use any excuse they can to avoid doing it.

Why your project teams don’t capture their learning

The low priority given to project closure means that it is often done in a half-hearted, tick-box kind of way.

People often do the bare minimum they can get away with, so lessons may be captured incompletely or ineffectively. This means that the potential value is lost, even though significant effort may have been expended.

But there are other reasons why learning may be captured incompletely or ineffectively. 
Here are six of the best:

  1. The lessons may not be appropriate for capture – they may be just too controversial, or not easy to describe in in written form.
  2. The lessons may be undervalued – and so considered not worth sharing.
  3. People may be unwilling to share their experience – either because it is embarrassing, or because they want to keep the knowledge for themselves.
  4. The learning may be captured too late – so the memory of it may be incomplete or inaccurate
  5. The learning may be expressed inappropriately – for example in the form of an observation (this is what we saw happening) rather than a recommendation (so this is what we think should be done differently in future)
  6. The experience or learning may be biased – People’s recollections of events may have been subconsciously edited to remove the bits of their memories that portray them in a bad light and keep the bits that make them look good. Thus any resultant learning will be based on bias.

So if it is not done carefully and consciously, lessons learned might not be as helpful as you would hope.

Why your project teams don’t store their learning for future projects

Many organisations identify lessons reasonably well, which gives the false impression that the lessons learned process is working. But they don’t store the learning from their delivery experience in an accessible form for use in future projects, so the learning is lost.

So how does this happen? Here are a few ways:

  • People write up lessons in reports, then ‘file and forget’ them.
    This means that the learning they contain is not organised, and if nobody knows how or where to find the lessons they are effectively hidden from view.
  • Knowledge may not be very relevant to the organisation’s future projects.
    Knowledge gained from a project type that doesn’t come up very often in an organisation won’t get used by that organisation, and ends up getting forgotten about and lost.
  • Knowledge is not kept up to date.
    Out of date information is at best a distraction that gets in the way and stops you from finding the information you really need. And at worst it could be dangerous – it could direct you to do things that have since been discovered to be counter-productive.
  • Organisations don’t know what they know.
    If knowledge about knowledge (what is in there, what it is about, where it is, how to access it, etc.) is not disseminated frequently, projects can forget their knowledge, even before the end of the project

So if the knowledge itself is not looked after and maintained, it can be lost forever.

Why your project teams don’t retrieve and apply the lessons of the past

Many project teams don’t retrieve and apply learning from previous projects to apply in the projects they are currently delivering.

The golden opportunity to review and apply learning from previous projects is right at the beginning of a new project or phase.

This is the ideal time to look at the new project, find similar projects from the past, and look at the real challenges that the previous project(s) encountered.

But project teams don’t do this often or as effectively as they could.

Why could this be? At the beginning of a new project, how do most project teams FEEL?

Excited? Enthusiastic? Keen to get cracking? Usually the answer is Yes.

In need of a good sit down and a rummage through a lessons learned database? Not so much…

Here are a few reasons why:

  • They are in a rush to start work on their shiny new projects
    …possibly as the result of pressure from an overbearing sponsor who wants to see early progress. As a result, reviewing past lessons for useful guidance is low on the priority list.
  • They believe they don’t NEED to learn
    …most people believe they are better than average (although of course most people CANNOT be better than average!). As a result they may also think there is limited opportunity to learn from others, so they won’t look for lessons from the past, and they miss out on the opportunity to learn.
  • They like to believe that their current project is unique
    This idea is built into most definitions of what a project is. But although there are commonalities across many projects, the idea of uniqueness can be misused as a reason not to seek learning.
  • They don’t know where to find the lessons of the past.
    …because they are written up in reports and filed away.
  • They don’t know what lessons will be relevant
    …because the lessons that do exist are not organised to make this apparent.

So if the lessons of the past are not retrieved and applied, they aren’t useful.

So, what can we do better?

Fortunately, we have created some resources that can help, starting with these articles:

If you are looking for more comprehensive and detailed information, you could try Ken’s book Learning lessons from projects:

We have also created some handy templates to help you to:

  • Identify the learning in your project delivery experience
  • Capture it well
  • Articulate it in a form that is useful to others
  • Review your organisation’s existing approach to learning lessons and identify ways to improve it.

You can download the resources FREE if you sign up to our (approximately) monthly newsletter, which will bring you hints and tips on how to make your projects run more smoothly, as well as early access to our videos:

What else?

One way to avoid many of the problems described above is to have your project retrospective run independently. To find out the benefits of this approach, take a look at this article: