The Art and Science of Lessons Learnt

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!

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11 Responses to The Art and Science of Lessons Learnt

  1. […] really learning lessons is an extraordinarily tricky business (even for much simpler situations) so I certainly […]

  2. […] Also from the above principles it’s clear that ‘constructive honesty’ is a key (if rare) virtue for both individuals, teams and companies! This links in to lessons learnt. […]

  3. […] This project got me interested in the whole area of ‘lessons learnt’ (this phrase is not the best to describe the situation but is useful as a catch-all) and some of my initial thoughts are here. […]

  4. […] may be the best way forward for all sorts of reasons. If this happens it’s important that the lessons of this are learnt and fed back into future project business cases – they often […]

  5. […] Taken at face value these observations apply to many product development projects – they’re totally generic and to that extent also fairly predictable. The interesting part is how these observations were taken into account (assuming they were) for future projects, this is the tricky and messy part – see also here. […]

  6. […] The Mistake Bank I came across this interesting site, The Mistake Bank, which is dedicated to ’sharing learning from faux pas, slip-ups and decisions gone wrong’. It links in to my interest in ‘lessons learnt’ or (more usually) ‘lessons captured’ (see here). […]

  7. […] strategy, one of their short term goals (1-5 years) is to “encourage storytelling to share lessons learnt“. Lessons are elicited from academia, industry and global […]

  8. […] an interesting article that discusses the ‘lessons learnt‘ from this challenge (to study the viral dispersion of information). Hopefully these insights […]

  9. […] is a somewhat timeless and seemingly generally unappetising and difficult activity, see for example here and here and other posts on this […]

  10. […] a business setting, a project room or project retrospective workshop comes to mind. Anyone tried different combinations and what were the results? This links in a bit […]

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