Project Lessons Learned: From Dread to Fun
09 Nov

Project Lessons Learned: From Dread to Fun

If there is a project activity that defines love-hate relationships, Lessons Learned is it.

At the start of the project, most people are enthusiastic about capturing Lessons Learned sometime before the project team disperses. That’s because they feel this activity is a key element of that fabled entity, ‘the learning organization’ – and who doesn’t want to be part of that? A learning organization is one where there are no such things as mistakes, only learning opportunities. Everyone keeps improving until the end of time. Management talks about this with their chests out, shoulders proudly back – it is a visible emblem of good leadership. It’s love! Or at least, it’s infatuation.

By the end of the project, especially the long grinds that enterprise transformations tend to be, Lessons Learned causes a different reaction. Management’s shoulders droop at the mention of the words. Everyone else looks away when a project manager announces that this activity is coming up and needs to get done. A date with destiny. Maybe you’ll get lucky and have a dentist appointment for a root canal when this session is being held. Maybe you should schedule that surgical procedure now, the one you have been delaying. It’s no longer love. That’s been lost. It’s hate. Or at least, anguish.

What happened?

Well, lots, actually. At the start of the project this activity is conceptual. Near the end it’s real. In the beginning it’s about holding the ‘the organization’ to account. In the final stretch it’s about the individual being held accountable. Initially it’s impersonal. Finally, it’s personal. Oh joy. No wonder enthusiasm has morphed into anguish or apathy.

As a project manager you often have no choice when it comes to doing this activity. Somehow you have to get this activity done, and with input from as many unenthusiastic team members and end users as possible. But you do have a choice about how you do Lessons Learned. You can either force it, frog march everybody through the exercise like a concentration camp guard. Alternatively, you can do lessons learned ‘light’, calling a few people and documenting their thoughts, and hoping nobody will ask too many questions about your methodology.

Or, for the enlightened, there is another option, a third option, a better option.

Boosting Team Morale

What if there was a way to do Lessons Learned so that it lifts everyone’s morale up at the end? And what if that way has you looking like an inspired people-genius to boot? Well OK, maybe like a pretty decent and competent project manager that most people would want to work with again? Would you try it?

Well, if you do, here is how. The trick is in how you approach this activity yourself as a project manager.

The assumption regarding Lessons Learned is that it’s about what the team has learned from their mistakes. But why the focus just on mistakes? What if the focus is on all of the good actions people have taken? Surely somebody saved a day somewhere. Someone must have gone beyond the call of duty to do the right thing now and then. Some people probably worked together really well, a demonstration of exemplary team work.

What if you decided to do this activity as a form of project celebration and team morale booster? Document all the good stuff! However, you may feel you don’t have the energy to do this by the end of your project. You may be worn out yourself and just want to get these last few tasks completed and wrap up. That’s totally understandable.

A Challenge

Trying to find information on how to do this activity is not easy. Browsing Amazon doesn’t yield many results. However, there is a way to turn this downer activity into something resembling a party!

Here are 10 practical steps to creating a positive experience when doing a Lessons Learned activity at the end of your project:

  1. Find a team member with a more positive outlook.
  2. Brainstorm some of the ‘wins’ on the project and start building your list.
  3. Pick an external (from the project) facilitator.
  4. Schedule the Lessons Learned session in conjunction with a celebration activity.
  5. Invite participants to come with 3 examples of things that were done well, a name of at least one team member they were impressed with and why, and 3 things they would do differently the next time.
  6. Book room. Order drinks and munchies according to budget.
  7. Kick off the session, starting with positives.
  8. When you get to the critiques of how things were done, insist that each problem identified be accompanied by at least 2-3 recommendations for solutions.
  9. Document everything. Now go celebrate!
  10. Finally, develop a summary report and circulate it for additional comments. Add comments (if any) to the summary report. Distribute final report and add to repository.

That’s it! Congratulations, you are now officially a super-PM!

If you want a tip sheet on the key steps you can take to set up this kind of Lessons Learned session, click this link and download the free How-To article, “10 Steps to an Energizing Lessons Learned Session”.

Good luck, and let us know how this went for you.


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