At the end of every project, it is customary to hold a lessons learnt activity (sometimes called a project postmortem or a project retrospective).
This may range from an informal get-together to share thoughts to a structured and facilitated multi-day workshop, depending on the importance of the project.
The nature of the meeting will depend alot on whether the project was viewed (by the team and management) as a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’. Unfortunately both these words are quite emotive and can often make it difficult to extract something resembling the ‘truth’ (or at least a close approximation to it).
Projects, such as a bid, can be successful just as much through a competitor making a bad mistake as a team producing a brilliant proposal, although this is usually quite unlikely to be brought out and emphasised (assuming it is even known). And conversely for failing projects. It’s tricky!
The results of these meetings are hopefully captured (by facts, advice and stories) and the results made available for wider access, both informally through meetings and conversations and also through a document repository. The aim is that future teams (and hopefully management) can benefit from these past experiences, bearing in mind that ‘past performance is not a guide to future performance’.
This again is not straightforward as project observations can be so generic as to be practically worthless (eg inexperienced project manager, poor choice of subcontractors etc) or so specific that only a handful of staff can understand them, let alone benefit from them. This is where the artfulness comes in, getting the balance and focus right for the organisation whilst being sensitive to it’s prevalent culture.
Finally, the degree to which genuine insights are effectively dispersed within an organisation is another factor crucial to generating useful incremental improvements (steps) or major changes (leaps).
In fact it’s pretty amazing how often you hear or read the term ‘lessons learnt’ in newspaper articles, the TV and radio. It always seems to assume it’s a fairly mechanical and all-redeeming exercise – it isn’t, and it never will be!