Wednesday 27 November 2019

Why you should never leave your lessons in the project report

Probably the worst place to store project lessons is to leave them in the End of Project Report.

Tombstone created using

I know this is still the default approach for many project organisations, and 19% organisations who run KM programs still use this approach (according to our KM survey). However this approach was linked to the second-lowest satisfaction score for lesson learning, second only to "we don't store our lessons anywhere". So leaving lessons in project files is only slightly better than not storing them anywhere.

But why is this the case?

It makes sense for the project team to leave the lessons in the report, because lessons are a project output, and surely all project outputs are documented in the report? Once the report is written, the job of the project team is done.

However although the job of the lesson writer may be over, the job of the lesson-seeker is only just starting.

People searching for lessons (whether they are people in future project teams, or subject matter experts maintaining process documentation) will be searching for lessons to help with a specific issue, risk, process or task. They would like to find all the lessons associated with that issue, risk or task in the same place. They almost certainly will not know which projects learned lessons on which topic. They don’t want to have to go back through 20 or 30 project reports, looking through the lessons learned section of each one, just in case there is something of relevance.

Therefore they don't bother.

The lessons remain unread; the project report becomes a tomb in the lessons graveyard. Learned once, and destined to be relearned in future.

Two of the basic principles for effective lesson learning are that you need to 1) capture lessons individually, and 2) store them centrally. As I pointed out in yesterday's blog post, lessons are a knowledge output from a project, and should be stored with the rest of the knowledge, not the rest of the project files. In order to make it easy for the lessons to be found, you need to store the individual lessons under themes or topics in a lessons management system until they make their way into updated practice and procedure, guidance and training.

 If lessons are being learned from many projects, for example from Retrospects and After Action reviews, then these lessons need to be stored somewhere where they can be compared, reconciled, and actions assigned, notified, tracked and managed. They need to be captured in a consistent format, and stored in a central system.

 This is often done in some sort of Lessons Management System, set up either for a major business stream such as Sales or Engineering or for the entire organisation, to store and track lessons from many projects.

An effective lessons management system should be structured according to the needs of the “knowledge user”. People who come to access lessons from the database should be able to find what they are looking for very easily. If they don't find relevant and useful knowledge within a few minutes, they will leave and never come back.

Think about the needs and interests of the knowledge user, think about how the knowledge will be re-used, and think about how you should structure the database to most easily give them access to what they need.  The knowledge seeker is  looking for lessons about procuring steel pipe for example, or for all the lessons to do with safety while working at height, or for all the lessons to do with partnering with a particular national authority; in other words, lessons to do with the particular issue that they face. The lessons therefore need to be grouped into a structure,  index or taxonomy, based on work activity or work process. Think about how supermarkets gather and present produce, and use ideas such as this to stock your knowledge supermarket.

In addition, the lessons management system should be able proactively to route lessons and associated actions to the relevant process owner, in order that the lessons can be embedded in improved process, and can be declared properly "learned" and the learning loop can be closed.

Leaving them in the project report graveyard destroys the learning loop at the first step.

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