Documenting Lessons Learned - Project Management

We're a lot smarter now that we've made it to the end of the project than we were before we started. We've learned some things simply by performing the project management practices throughout the project and watching the life-cycle processes play out. Now what you need to do, and should do throughout the project, is document those things you learned that will help you perform the next project more efficiently.

My dad, while giving me lecture number 343, would often tell me I was lucky to be able to benefit from his experience. He was happy to help me out by passing on valuable information so that I wouldn't have to "learn the hard way." It's taken me a while, but I've come to see the wisdom in this, especially in the project management field. Why should you repeat the same mistakes a former project manager made, or even ones you made in the past, when you can avoid them and have your next project run more smoothly than the last one?

Thelessons learned document contains information about all the project life-cycle processes but most important the Executing and Controlling processes. These two processes are when the work of the project is performed and when you'll likely find mistakes that were made in the Planning documents or processes. Anything you discover that could have been clearer or any additional information that would have helped to avoid confusion should be noted here. Process improvements, communication glitches, or any other information that will help you perform the next project better should be noted here.

lessons learned

The documented successes and failures of the project.

Ask your team members, stakeholders, and the project sponsor to help you compile the lessons learned document. Ask them what went well on the project and what could have gone better. Don't wait until the end of the project to start making notes, however. Start this document during the Executing phase and begin making notes to yourself as soon as problems occur. Document how the situation could have been handled differently to avoid these same types of problem on future projects. Information you should include in your lessons learned document includes the following:

  • How the project management processes were used throughout the project and how successful they were in planning and tracking progress
  • How well the project plan and project schedule reflected the actual work of the project
  • How well the change management process worked and what might have worked better
  • Why corrective actions were taken
  • Causes of performance variances and how they could have been avoided
  • Outcomes of corrective actions
  • Risks response plans that were implemented and whether they adequately addressed the risk events
  • Unplanned risk events that occurred
  • Mistakes that occurred and how they could have been avoided
  • Team dynamics, including what could have helped the team perform more efficiently

Don't limit your lessons learned document to only the items on this list. Anything that worked well, or didn't work well, that will help you perform your next project better or smooth out problems before they get out of hand should be documented here. That means positive and negative feedback. This process is particularly useful for failed projects as there are many things you can learn from projects that fail that will help prevent your next project from suffering the same fate.

Many project managers skip this step because, let's face it, most of us don't like to admit our mistakes and we don't want others knowing that we made them. Encourage your team to be honest and forthcoming about their lessons learned. If you've spent the time throughout the project building their trust and creating an open atmosphere of communication, documenting lessons learned won't be that difficult. Assure your employees that this is for the benefit of future projects and is not a means to punish or judge their work. Establish some ground rules that say no one may blame someone else for anything that went wrong and that no names will be taken. Documenting lessons learned allows you to bring a wealth of knowledge to future projects, and you'll benefit by learning from past mistakes without having to repeat them.

The lessons learned document should get filed in the project notebook with all the other project information. This is one of the first documents you'll want to review when starting your next project.

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