What makes a “Good” lesson learned?

How to write a good lesson learned

Following on from a couple of talks I have given recently on why organisations don’t learn as much as they could from running projects, I was asked how to write a “good” Lesson Learned.

This was captured well in one of the responses to my survey

“Many ‘lessons learned’ are merely observations, with no suggestion on how to do things differently. Two or three actionable recommendations are more useful than 20 observations without any suggestions.”

To write a “good” Lesson Learned:

  • The PM should craft a story describing what happened. This could be written, delivered as a presentation, in a face to face conversation, or recorded as a video. The thing to remember is don’t polish it too much and murder the message by suffocating it in layers of “corporatese”; make it Personal, Powerful and Passionate to keep it engaging. Your story should be in STARR format, covering:
    1. Situation: This is what we were faced with (constraints, risk, issue, etc.)
    2. Target: This is the outcome we wanted to achieve
    3. Action: This is what we did
    4. Result: These were the consequences of our actions (nothing new so far I know, but here it comes…)
    5. Recommendation: (the “moral”” of the story) So in order to achieve better outcomes in the future, this is how we recommend that people (including us) should behave differently, or how we should change process (rules, systems, etc.) to improve future outcomes (i.e. things to do / not do; IF this situation applies THEN do this, etc.). This is the “so what?” that changes the Lesson from being interesting story to an actionable piece of advice based on real life experience.
    6. …and lastly the PM should include details of how they can be contacted to have a conversation in case they’ve left the organisation by the time the lesson is being watched / read.
  • At the “next level up”, the PMO should consider whether there is more learning that could be extracted  from the lesson, and whether the learning could be transferred to similar projects / scenarios. If so, they could write a more generalised version of the lesson.

What about storage?

I was then asked this follow-up question:

Is this the same lesson you'd store centrally?

I would say that both the original and the “next level up” versions of the Lesson could and should be stored centrally, but the word “store” brings up images of a musty room containing miles of shelves of dusty folders that never get touched again, a bit like this…

Does your Lessons Learned repository function like this?
Does your Lessons Learned repository function like this?

The key here is that the central repository shouldn’t be an information graveyard, where Lessons go to Die.

Instead the repository should be made searchable and social (e.g. using SharePoint?) so that PMs can easily find the Lessons they need; and the PMO should be on hand to help them find relevant information if they need it (for more on this look at this excellent article by Louise Worsley).

And filing shouldn’t be the only thing that happens to Lessons, as that by itself doesn’t ensure they are acted on.

More than just filing

Lesson(s) could and should be used as material for Lunch & Learn or “scar sharing” sessions, or Vlogs, or used in the “Call 3” approach devised by John McIntyre (take a look at this article for more explanation and an example Lessons Learned Vlog).

All of this helps an organisation and the people within it to learn from their collective  experience of running projects and to (hopefully!) deliver better project outcomes in the future.

So that’s what I think. Do you agree? Do you have something to add?

Let me know in the comments!

Image “Wimborne Minster: later books in the chained library” © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Scheduling, Monitoring & Control (Book Review)

Full title:Scheduling, Monitoring & Control: The Practical Project Management of Time, Cost and Risk
Author:APM PMCSIG
Publisher:
Association for Project Management (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire) 2015
ISBN:978-1-903-49444-8
Pages:327
RRP:£50 RRP (electronic review copy provided free of charge)
Rating:****

Overview

  • This book is a good reference guide to Planning, Scheduling, Monitoring and Control, with most of the topics covered at introductory to intermediate level in relatively informal jargon-free language with plenty of helpful diagrams.
  • The guide is aimed at students and practitioners, so I’m a bit puzzled why it begins with a chunky explanation of how projects are defined and the documents used. At 20 pages this section is too hefty for the completely uninitiated, but has nowhere near enough detail to be useful an already-practicing project manager (who would be better off referring to one of the BoKs or methodologies). I guess however that novice Project Planners may find it useful for context and orientation, and it signposts topics for further reading.

What’s inside

  • The book gives a useful and succinct description of the differences between planning and scheduling:
    • Planning is the art of deciding on the best way to do the project, defining scope and deliverables, and getting agreement from the stakeholders. It is broader than scheduling and logically happens earlier.
    • Scheduling is the science of estimating how long it will take and how much it will cost to deliver tasks, and sequencing them to create a logical model of the future that can predict when project outputs can be delivered. This model progressively becomes fact as estimates are revised and activities completed.
  • Next there are tips on planning and scheduling, including some suggested approaches for creating and quality-checking the documents. It describes how to set a schedule baseline, how to evaluate the impact of any changes requested (using offline, static copies of the live schedule), and how to update the baseline to take account of approved changes.
  • Monitoring approaches are then described, with a warning that no one of these gives a complete picture of the project’s status. Earned value analysis (EVA) comes closest, but requires significant effort
  • The book recommends regular schedule co-ordination meetings, to review recent progress (recording reasons behind any slippage for analysis later) and future tasks within an agreed time window, allowing team leaders to plan the near future in detail.
  • There is a good introduction to quantitative schedule risk analysis (a.k.a. Monte Carlo analysis) and the value it can bring to both schedule and dimensions by giving the PM statistically-derived forecasts of final delivery date and cost. Some of the diagrams here could be clearer, but I am told these will be reviewed ahead of the next print run.
  • The book also outlines how forensic schedule analysis can be used to establish the cause of delay(s) in litigation scenarios.
  • At the end there is a helpful glossary and a list of abbreviations.

Some example tips

  • Schedules should have an appropriate density (amount of detail) for their purpose: Low density for communication e.g. to executives; Medium density for the reference plan; High density for day-to-day management of delivery teams’ work. A schedule with too much detail is just as bad as a schedule with not enough detail, as it is difficult to manage and won’t be used.
  • Schedules should record a baseline (when we agreed it would be delivered, updated with any approved change requests), a forecast (when we now believe it will be delivered), and “as built” (when we actually delivered it, including any unexpected extra events). These may be in the same scheduling document but will not usually be displayed at the same time.
  • Where a team is producing a string of broadly similar deliverables and can be thought of ticking these off a list, it may be more helpful and easier to manage using a spreadsheet tracker rather than scheduling software.
  • Schedule item names should be understandable without reference to WBS headings (which may not be visible if a filter is applied) – task names should start with a verb (lay bricks; paint walls) to indicate activity, and milestone names should express a state in the past tense (walls built; plumbing complete)
  • First sequence tasks in logical order (using mostly easy-to-understand Finish-to-Start relationships), then allocate resources. Then apply resource levelling by first delaying tasks with free float (so delaying them does not delay successor tasks), and only then delaying tasks with no free float but some total float (so delaying them delays successor tasks but not the overall finish date)
  • Identify dependencies between projects, label these clearly in the schedule including whether these are inbound or outbound. Meet regularly with the PM at the other end of the dependency link; review whether the current forecast date works for both parties and agree any remedial action required. Any changes in delivery date to be the subject of change control.
  • A budget is a planned upper limit on resource to be consumed for a given task or tasks. It is often expressed financially but not always; it could be expressed as terms of days of effort, quantity of materials, etc.

The Verdict

I recommend this book for early and mid-career PMs and PMOs. I would have scored it higher if not for the somewhat incongruous section on project definition (which one can simply overlook) and a few mathematically doubtful diagrams (harder to ignore). I expect that my review copy will become dog-eared through use!

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