Lessons Learned: Specific or Universal?


At a recent PMO FlashMob event, I got chatting with a few FlashMobbers about what can be done with the Lessons identified in project closure reports. There were split opinions in the group:

  • Some thought that Lessons are usually specific to the Project concerned, and are only useful in later stages of the same project, or in running future projects that are very similar to the one from which the Lessons were learned;
  • Others (including me) thought that it is possible to extract more generic learning from at least some Lessons that can be implemented across many projects (even those that are different from the project that identified the Lesson), perhaps by adding or making a small change to a checklist, template, approach, BAU process or corporate PM methodology, or by including the Lesson in PM training or coaching.

I have written before about Lessons Learned and my ideas on how to use them, but I thought it might be fun to try an experiment, with which I would be grateful for your help.

I have written a web survey containing a number of Lessons learned from projects (some very loosely based on my own experience, and some completely made up) – please take a look at them, and for each one let me know:

  • Whether you think it is possible is to draw any learning from the Lesson that can be applied to projects beyond the same type as the original project, and if so
  • What learning you would take from that Lesson and how you would apply it.

On completing the survey (which should only take you about 5-10 minutes) you will see a summary of all the coded responses so far (the survey doesn’t allow respondents to see the free text responses). I will also give you the password to a follow-up article outlining my own thoughts on the examples, which I will update periodically with the best quality outputs from the survey.

So why not make yourself a cup of tea, take the survey and find out how closely your approach to applying Learning from Lessons compares to that of others in the PMO Community?

This idea is explored further in Ken Burrell’s book Learning lessons from projects, available from Amazon.

Author: Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell is a Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who through his company Pragmatic PMO makes targeted improvements to PMO practices to add value to Projects, Programmes and Portfolios. 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.

One thought on “Lessons Learned: Specific or Universal?”

  1. Good to see someone doing some investigation into Lessons learned. I’ve always found Lessons to be something that is good in theory, but seldom has any practical application. Attempting to condense the learnings of a project down to a couple of lines in a lessons log, or (dare I say it) database only serves to sanitise the issue 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 came up with an idea a while ago called “Call 3”, where if you start any new project in an organisation, the PMO will give you the names of three people you have to have a 30 minute call/meeting with before you get the project approved. The 3 people are selected by the PMO for having done similar projects in the past. They may not be project managers, but they will certainly have war stories to share. You get far more out of a 30 minute call from someone who’s “been there” than you ever get out of a filtered database or report.
    But what if the project team have left the organisation? Solution: Get PMs to do a “Call 3” deck 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? Get them to watch that scene in Jaws where they all compare scars to help them get away from presenting something sanitised – it needs to be unpolished to be valuable. The emotion and passion need to be there. I think if PMOs took this approach, rather than trying to distill everything down to lines in a log or database, they would see a lot more benefit from lessons than they do now.
    Anyway. That’s my thoughts. It’ll be interesting to see what responses you get – I’m looking forward to them! Maybe we can discuss it further at a PMO Flashmob event.

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