Lessons Learned: How To Increase Their Impact

My recent survey asked how transferable Lessons Learned are between projects.

johnThe follow-up (you can see that once you’ve taken part in the survey) imparted my thoughts and summarised some of the responses I received. Some of the comments didn’t quite fit into the survey format, including those from PMO Leader and fellow Flashmobber John McIntyre of Ticketmaster, who said:

I’ve always found Lessons Learned to be something that is good in theory, but that seldom has any practical application. Attempting to condense the learnings of a project down to a few lines in a lessons log, or (dare I say it) database only serves to sanitise the lesson to the extent that the learning is inevitably lost.

And why for the love of all things holy do we only do lessons reviews at the end of projects? Agile has it right here by advocating regular retrospectives where lessons are picked up and resolved continuously.
I agree that the lesson could become dry and distant, and the real-life consequences of “getting it wrong” diluted. So what would be better? Back to John:

I came up with an idea called “Call 3”(1):

Before you can get a new project approved, you must have a 30 minute phone call / meeting with each of three people identified by the PMO for having done similar projects in the past. They may not be project managers, but they will have war stories to share. You will get far more out of a 30 minute call with someone who’s “been there” [and has the scars to prove it! – Ken] than you would ever get out of a filtered database or report.

I think this is a great idea – but what if this similar project happened a while ago and all of the project team has now left the organisation? Here’s John again:

Get PMs to create a “Call 3” pack at the end of the project. Tell them to imagine it is a year down the line and they are answering the phone to a new PM starting a similar project. What would they say? What advice would they impart? What battle scars would they talk about? To help them get away from presenting something dry and sanitised, think of the scene in Jaws where they all compare scars: it needs to be unpolished to be valuable; the emotion and passion need to be there.

I agree with John’s point that the raw, true-to-life feel that comes from a lesson recounted directly by the PM who felt the pain will convey the message with a force and vitality that a generalised entry in a database never could. There is a caveat here though – the “Call 3” pack John refers to would need to be created by every project soon after the project completes.

So that makes me think…
How about changing the default vehicle for Lessons Learned from an impersonal written report to a personally-delivered presentation or video?

It could work like this:

  1. The PM schedules a half-hour “lesson session” – minimal slide count, but delivered with personality, vitality (and dare I say it humour?!)
  2. The PMO records this – it doesn’t have to be a polished production – SmartPhone video footage is fine.
  3. The PMO edits the video into bite-sized (5 mins?) individual lessons, and files them in a corporate repository (e.g. SharePoint?), tagging them with metadata such as project type, lesson type, etc.
  4. The PMO attaches enduring contact details (e.g. LinkedIn profile URL?) so that the original PM can be contacted after leaving the organisation.
  5. Ideally the PMO configures the repository to be searchable so that PMs can find their own lessons, and/or the PMO could pick out lessons relevant to a new project (in line with John’s “Call 3” idea). Even better, the repository would allow PMs to tag, rate and/or “Like” (C) videos, making it “social”, and increasing ownership.

The advantages of this “Talking Head” video approach are:

  • It is quick and easy to do (just about anyone can email a video from their phone to the PMO) – so there is no need to wait until the end of the project – anyone can film a short video after any event they have learned from while the details (and pain?!) are still fresh
  • It produces an engaging artefact for the ready reference of PMs who come after the original PM has left
  • Like “Call 3”, informality maximises the immediacy and passion of the message, increasing the chances the lesson will be impactful enough to be acted upon
  • It provides opportunities for networking and mentoring, even after PMs have left an organisation
  • With the right type of repository, PMs can find lessons easily and make better use of the organisation’s collective “memory”.
  • If an organisation is prepared to post videos on a public platform (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), then the whole, global PM community would benefit. Lessons Learned would effectively have become crowdsourced, and we would be one step closer to realising the APM’s vision of a world in which All Projects Succeed.

I think that a combination of John’s “Call 3” approach (for PMs who are still in the organisation) and my “Talking Head” approach (with video back-up to cover PMs who have left) gives optimal coverage. Back to John again:

I think if PMOs took this [personal] approach, rather than trying to distil everything down to lines in a log or database, they would see a lot more benefit from lessons than they do now.

It was this kind of thinking that drove me to launch the Campaign for Real Project Managers (#CAMRPM) with this post about experience gained from “ugly” projects. I believe that individual PMs and the PM community as a whole can gain a lot from being prepared to show each other our scars, and to learn from each others’ experience.

To show you what the outputs of this approach could look like, here is a video imparting a few of the lessons that I have learned during my PM and PMO career.

An example of a Lessons Learned Video Post from Pragmatic PMO on Vimeo.

If you would like to discuss any of these lessons (or the ones in my #CAMRPM with this post in more detail, feel free to contact me via LinkedIn, collar me at a PMO Flashmob, or use the “contact us” page on my web site. Let’s get together for a coffee (or better still a beer!), and I’ll happily talk you through it.

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments.


[1]“Call 3” Lessons Learned approach published with the permission (and enthusiastic support) from John McIntyre of Ticketmaster, who asked me to write-up his idea.

About Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who helps organisations to improve the way they change through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO: sometimes by supporting the controlled delivery of change programmes, and sometimes by ensuring CxOs get the information they need to make strategic decisions about those change programmes.

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