Lessons Learned in Project Management – How to Do It Right


Every project provides valuable experience – positive as well as negative. The good news is that you can derive new insights and benefits from both! In the end, every experience can be helpful for future projects – and thus contribute substantially to future successes. Yet, how can you consciously take up this knowledge, channel it and pass it on so that it provides a real benefit? A well-known method for this is Lessons Learned in project management.

The following chapters will address this method:

Note: Find an article on Retrospectives for Agile Projects here. This is the equivalent of Lessons Learned in traditional projects.

Let us begin with a definition of Lessons Learned.

Lessons Learned Definition

Lessons learned refers to the written documentation and systematic collection, evaluation and summarization of experiences, developments, tips, errors and risks from projects. Observing and avoiding these can prove useful for future projects. (Source: Wikipedia in German language)

By now, Lessons Learned has become an integral part of project portfolio management. When applied and implemented correctly, this method can be a part of your strategy for success!

Both in project management and in the PMO, the Lessons Learned method will support you in deriving insights from past project situations. What this means for new projects:

  • Avoidance of mistakes
  • Reduced risks
  • Seizing of opportunities
  • Increased project quality

Lessons Learned can be applied in different ways. This article will introduce you to an example of a proven approach.

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How Is the Lessons Learned Method Applied?

There are many ways to apply Lessons Learned in project management. Which type of approach are you familiar with?

In my experience, Lessons Learned is often only practiced at the end of a project with a simple survey of the project team.

The two classic questions are:

  • What went well?
  • What went badly?

The respective answers tend to be similarly superficial, as the participants may:

  • Not be bold enough to say anything relevant.
  • Not have had or taken the chance to prepare anything.
  • Know that their statement will have no lasting effect.

Hence, this will often result in people saying what the others want to hear. Which usually is: “All went well.”

Obviously, Lessons Learned in project management can do more than that. However, it needs more room in the project. Otherwise, there will be no time to consciously apply Lessons Learned and thereby generate added value.

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Example of a Possible Approach

As previously mentioned, there are many types of Lessons Learned in project management. You will get to know one possible approach below. It is a methodology accompanying the whole length of the project – from start to finish.

The implementation consists of 4 phases:

  1. Informing and building the team
  2. Gathering phase
  3. Preparing the workshop
  4. Workshop
Lessons Learned in Project Management 1
Figure 1: The 4 phases of the Lessons Learned method

Phase 1: Informing and Building the Team

Inform your project team at the very beginning of the project that you will be applying the Lessons Learned method. This will foster transparency and understanding.

In the process, it is important to demonstrate or explain the way in which you will apply Lessons Learned.

In addition, you can use this address to inspire and motivate your team to use the method and to clear up any potential misunderstandings as well as to figure out the team’s expectations.

Subsequently, you will decide – depending on team size and structure – who will be counted as “actively involved”. You can do this alone but are equally welcome to decide this together with the team.

When building your team, make sure you include people from different areas of the project. This will enable you to capture diverse points of view.

Only those participants count as “actively involved” who take part in shaping the Lessons Learned and take on an active role. These can be selected individuals from the different project areas or the whole team. This depends on the situation and the size of the project team.

Our tip: Make sure the number of people does not end up being too high. After all, the same individuals will be the participants of the later workshop. In my experience, 3 to 10 people is a good size for a Lessons Learned team.

Phase 2: Gathering Insights

Throughout the whole project, you will be in the so-called gathering phase. During this time, every actively involved participant is called upon to document insights, experiences, impressions, etc. – positive as well as negative.

It is the collection of information that may have relevance for the subsequent Lessons Learned workshop.

To make it easier to gather information, a so-called logbook may be helpful. This is where you and your team can note down what happens on the project. This does not have to be too detailed, but it should briefly report the situation.

Our tip: The logbook can be a simple Excel table. For greater consistency, it makes sense for everyone actively involved to have the same logbook. Consider giving the logbook to the active participants symbolically as a little present. So far, this has always created a much more positive atmosphere. 😉

Log Book for Lessons Learned in Project Management
Figure 2: Lessons Learned template – Logbook for gathering insights during the project

Phase 3: Preparing the Workshop

The workshop is the centerpiece of this Lessons Learned method. Therefore, it requires sound preparation.

Alongside the organizational matters, such as workshop materials, booking the room, etc., the preparation of the contents and order of events is key.

You need to resolve one vital question:

What topics should be covered in the workshop in order to provide the greatest benefit and the highest relevance?

For this, it is advisable to narrow down the subjects to key experiences on the project. These are the topics you should deliberately cover in the workshop.

The basis for topic identification: hold talks with your participants and thus filter out the key experiences!

To obtain a selection of correct and vital topics, you can hold talks with the active participants. This is where the logbook comes in handy. After all – if the logbook keeps a good record – it provides everyone actively involved with a mishmash of topics to choose from.

From these talks, you subsequently select the most pressing and frequently mentioned incidents.

It is important to get a good mix of positive and negative aspects, since Lessons Learned includes both areas.

Make sure you obtain a good mix of positive and negative aspects when compiling the topics. This will keep all participants motivated.

Phase 4: Lessons Learned Workshop

All previous phases were geared towards the Lessons Learned workshop. The workshop is the highlight of the method.

It is where you and your team actively work with the experiences, deduct insights and obtain recommendations for action.

To begin with, let us look at the group of participants and the agenda.

The workshop should include the following participants:

  • All “actively involved” people
  • The project manager
  • Stakeholders (optional, but this will foster transparency and trust)
  • A moderator (optional but useful)

The moderator should be from outside the project and your group of “active participants”. This means he or she should not come from the project discussed in the workshop. This makes him or her a neutral person able to conduct the workshop without bias.

Ensure that the moderator of your workshop does not come from one of the projects discussed.

The agenda takes participants through the workshop and shapes it accordingly, as you can see in the example below:

  1. Welcome address & project presentation
  2. Round of introductions & expectations
  3. Introduction
  4. Rules
  5. Emotions
  6. Presentation of topics
  7. Analysis of topics & recommendations
  8. Result
  9. Next steps & transfer
  10. Round of feedback

1. Welcome Address & Project Presentation

The moderator opens the session and welcomes the participants. The agenda is presented.

As part of the introduction, the moderator briefly expands on the project, e.g. via a milestone plan.

2. Round of Introductions & Expectations

All participants briefly introduce themselves and state in which area or role they acted in the project. In addition, all participants mention their individual expectations of the Lessons Learned workshop.

It helps if the moderator takes down these expectations on a flip chart so that they can be referred to in the feedback round.

3. Introduction

The introduction gives the moderator the opportunity to elaborate on the approach. This ensures that all participants have the same knowledge level and clears up misunderstandings.

For instance, you can answer the following questions:

  • Why do we conduct this Lessons Learned workshop?
  • Who is the initiator?
  • What has been the preparatory work?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the goal of the workshop?

Our tip: You could consider asking these questions in the plenum thus facilitating an exchange amongst the participants. This will lighten up the mood, as all participants tend to be very tense at the beginning.

4. Rules

Especially for Lessons Learned workshops, we advise you to introduce rules.

The reason?

Very often, the topics are emotionally charged. Rules support the participants and act as a guiding principle. The moderator can present these rules briefly and elaborate on the individual points.

The box below shows an example of workshop rules:

Sample List of Workshop Rules

Please note:

  1. Think in solutions
  2. I-statements (what have I learned; what would help me)
  3. No finger-pointing
  4. We are a team – hierarchies are dissolved

… and we’re allowed to laugh 😉

5. Emotions

After the first two introductory items on the agenda, it is time to begin the operational part of the workshop.

Use emotions to get started. For example, the moderator can ask the participants to portray their emotions regarding the project as a whole. These can be visualized centrally where everyone is able to see them.

For instance, the question could be as follows: What do I feel when I think of the project as a whole?

Overall, this will create a good overview of the project or rather its atmosphere.

Our tip: Use smiley cards to capture emotions. Alternatively, you could use a scale of numbers from 1 to 10. 1 for ‘really bad’ and 10 for ‘absolutely thrilled’. As smiley cards, you can just use Post-its or moderation cards, on which the participants can draw their emotion with colored pens.

Lessons Learned in Project Management 4
Simple smiley cards can be helpful where emotions are central

6. Presentation of Topics

Next, you present the topics which you or the team have selected during the talks in the preparation phase. You depict the individual topics to make them visible for all and provide a short explanation.

It is important that the plenum agree with the current choice of topics. Depending on the situation, you can now make changes.

Our tip: Always keep this point very open to debate. This allows the team to shape the workshop together and to put together the topics as a group.

7. Analysis of Topics & Recommendations

Analyzing the topics is the centerpiece of the workshop. This involves looking at the individual topics and working out recommendations for action.

To support the participants, you can revert to the central questions outlined below:

  1. Cause: How did this situation arise? What was the crucial factor?
  2. Effect: What was the consequence, the result, the corollary?
  3. Recommendations for action: What worked out well; what could have been better?

The central questions in the workshop: how did this happen, what was the consequence and what went well?

This part is a classic teamwork piece. It is possible to handle it in small individual groups or in the big group with the aid of the moderator.

Please keep in mind that recommendations for action do not only come out of negative situations. There are also successful incidents in projects that you can recommend for the future.

Watch out: There is no model solution!

As every project, every project progression, every project team is unique, the corresponding recommendations for action will also be individual.

Recommendations for action which are useful for one company may be practiced in a different way at another company. At yet another company, they may not be possible to implement at all due to the organizational structure.

But that is the beauty of Lessons Learned in project management: aspects and possibilities that are not in the textbooks may arise from workshop and teamwork.

Feel free to be creative in this respect! The only important thing is to achieve an actionable result.

For example:

  • A short daily stand-up meeting with the project team during the project phase to optimize the flow of information.
  • A different naming or structure for the project folders in the file store to simplify the search process for documents / information.
  • An improved formulation of the requirements and the prioritization. What can be helpful are custom-made templates based on the MoSCoW rule (Must / Should / Could / Won’t have). They make the stakeholders’ expectations more tangible.


8. Result

The focus of this part is on the results of the presentation of topics. Now, there is a constructive discussion of the topics in the plenum. What follows is their clear formulation and documentation.

The goal is for every recommendation for action to:

  • Make sense for every participant
  • Be meaningful and applicable
  • Find acceptance in the whole team

Work through the individual topics one after another. Thus, you end up with a recommendation for action for each point – ready to use for future projects.

9. Next Steps & Transfer

Once you have finalized the recommendations for action, it is necessary to settle the next steps. This could involve scheduling a follow-up meeting to discuss further points which have come up during the workshop.

Another interesting read: Why Have a Project Management Office (PMO)?

Moreover, you could address additional topics such as “communication” and “transfer of information”, e.g.:

  • How can we carry the recommendations for action into future projects?
  • Where and how can we file them so that other departments or project teams can use them?

Our tip: Pay particular attention to this part of the workshop! After all, it is where you decide how the information acquired in the workshop will be passed on to other departments and heads – hence it is essential for the PMO.

10. Round of Feedback

The feedback round is the conclusion of the Lessons Learned workshop. You are almost there!

This is every participant’s chance to recall the workshop and give feedback.

Likewise, the moderator can dwell upon the participants’ expectations taken down at the beginning of the workshop.

The session ends with the windup, i.e. the expression of thanks to the participants and the break-up of the workshop.

Conclusion – Lessons Learned in Project Management

Lessons Learned in project management is a good method for the conscious and sustainable generation of knowledge from experience.

In principle, the idea is to actively engage with the particular Lessons Learned topics or even create pivotal moments (aha effects). This will fix the knowledge better in the minds and support the learning effect.

In this article, you have learned about the most important aspects of implementing an exemplary Lessons Learned method. It has 4 phases:

  1. Informing and building the team (communication & assembling the team)
  2. Gathering phase (gathering of topics during the project)
  3. Workshop preparation
  4. Workshop

What is more, you have learned that Lessons Learned in project management always has to be individually adapted to the project at hand. Hence, there is no magic formula. Thus, it is important to see all examples used in the article as suggestions rather than as guidelines.

The benefit for you? Use this Lessons Learned guide to identify and implement potential for optimization in your projects!

In our experience, it has always been worth it. Have you had similar experiences?

Our final tips:

Get to know the individually adaptable “PPM Paradise” – the optimal environment for your enterprise-wide project, program, portfolio and resource management (PPM). Download the free eBook “The PPM Paradise” now (just click, no form).

And sign up for our bi-weekly blog newsletter with information on more hands-on articles, eBooks, etc. to improve your project management maturity level.

Any questions? We are happy to answer them and look forward to your comment in the comment field below.

Sonja Bannick – Lessons Learned in Project Management 3
Sonja Bannick, Project Expert and Blogger

About the author: In her over 25 years of professional experience, Sonja Bannick has worked in various positions. So far, she has gained experience as a founder, head of operations, senior business consultant and as a managing director in various industries.

Her core expertise includes holistic management consulting (strategy – people – organization – technology), managing teams and departments and developing them further. Project management has always played a central role for her.

Since 2011, she has been keeping her own blog on-operations in her spare time, in which she takes up topics from her business environment and describes her views.


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  1. Really helpful! You summarised why do we need to use this approach and how to do it. Collecting feed-backs from our experiences is crucial, especially if we want to have a ‘company culture’ and to solve the problems in the future, but do you have any suggestions on how to store these datas and using keywords in order to find/reuse them easily?

  2. Biswajit Nayak on

    Exceptional article! It was really very helpful. Do you have any example of how to convert the lesson learned to actionable items?

    • Antje Lehmann-Benz on

      Do you have any example of how to convert the lesson learned to actionable items?
      The website retromat.org has a great collection of techniques for doing this. Specifically, I would look into the “Decide what to do” category there.
      Kind regards
      Antje Lehmann-Benz, MA, PMP, PMI-ACP, PSM, PSPO
      Trainer | Coach (Project Management, Agile, JIRA)

  3. Nabin Chandra Sadhu on

    Very useful lesson in lesson learning in project management.
    Please explain which aspects of project management need more lesson learning.
    What is the meaning of learning organisation ?

    Thank you. Regards.

    • Bettina von Staden on

      Thanks for your comment! This is a reply for you from the author herself:

      Hello Naben Chandra Sadhu,
      Lovely to hear that you liked the article and were able to draw ‘lessons’ from it.

      As regards your questions:
      1. The aspects of project management that are in greater need of Lessons Learned will vary from case to case. Each project, each project team, as well as the management of each individual project, is unique. Hence, the project scope, process and phases are always lived and experienced differently. Likewise, there are essentially different standards of quality. And last but not least, there is a variety of different project management methods.
      Therefore, it is hard to single out specific aspects.
      In general, one can say that Lessons Learned will be beneficial if it is applied alongside the entire course of the project to determine input for new projects. Or after each project phase (which will differ depending on the project management method or project type).
      My tip: just try it out where it seems to make sense – because you will learn from every experience 😉

      2. What exactly did you mean by your second question? Could you maybe be a little more specific regarding the “learning organisation”?

      I am happy about our exchange.
      Best regards

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