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

Author: Ken

Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who makes targeted improvements to PMO practices to add value to Projects, Programmes and Portfolios through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO. He provides senior management with the analysis they need to make decisions, and gives project and programme managers the support they need to deliver solutions.

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