+++ How to Use the Lessons Learned Method Properly +++ Examples and Templates for the Right Approach +++
By Sonja Bannick (guest author) Read article in German
Every project provides valuable experience. Positive as well as negative.
The good news is: 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. It supports project managers and the PMO 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 one approach.
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!
How Is the Lessons Learned Method Applied Nowadays?
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 carry no effect.
Hence, the result is likely to be as follows:
People will say 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.
Example of a Possible Approach
As previously mentioned, there are many types of Lessons Learned in project management. I will illustrate 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:
- Informing and building the team
- Gathering phase
- Workshop preparation
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.
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.
One thing will be worth its weight in gold when it comes to retrospect: the logbook. This is where all participants can note down their experience. In the upcoming workshop, they can refer to it.
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.
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 contributed to a much more positive atmosphere 😉
Phase 3: Workshop Preparation
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 choice of subjects to key experiences on the project. These are the exact 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 workshop. The workshop is the highlight of the Lessons Learned 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)
- 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:
- Welcome address & project presentation
- Round of introductions & expectations
- Presentation of topics
- Analysis of topics & recommendations
- Next steps & transfer
- 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.
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?
- What has been the preparatory work?
- Who is the initiator?
- What is the focus?
- What is the goal of the workshop?
Tip: You could consider asking these questions in the plenum thus facilitating an exchange amongst the participants. This will lighten up the mood, as participants tend to be very tense at the beginning.
Especially for Lessons Learned workshops, I like to advise introducing rules.
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
- Think in solutions
- I-statements (what have I learned; what would help me)
- No finger-pointing
- We are a team – hierarchies are dissolved
… and we’re allowed to laugh 😉
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.
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.
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.
Tip: I tend to 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, I like to revert to the central questions outlined below:
- Cause: How did this situation arise? What was the crucial factor?
- Effect: What was the consequence, the result, the corollary?
- 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 team work.
Feel free to be creative in this respect! The only important thing is that you achieve an actionable result.
- 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.
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: our article discussing what makes a PMO important.
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?
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, I have presented you with the most important aspects of implementing an exemplary Lessons Learned method. It has 4 phases:
- Informing and building the team (communication & assembling the team)
- Gathering phase (gathering of topics during the project)
- Workshop preparation
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 sure 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 my experience, it has always been worth it. Have you had similar experiences?
About the author: In her 20 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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