Ever felt the sting of déjà vu in your projects? That eerie sense that you're reliving the same nightmares from previous projects repeatedly?
Business ventures (and projects) can be rewarding endeavors. Delivering a successful project is one of the best feelings ever, but it’s not without challenges and hurdles.
Business owners and project managers can use lessons learned from current projects to help them avoid the same issues in future projects. The idea is to continuously improve and adjust based on feedback from customers, the entire project team, and stakeholders.
In this article, we’ll review the benefits, steps, and tips to get you started with your lessons-learned process. We’ll also show you a few examples and a template you can use to capture the lessons the right way.
Defining lessons learned
You know the adage: Don't "reinvent the wheel" or "ignorantly knock your head on the same tree branch."
Well, that's where the lessons learned project management process come in.
Let's say you're baking a cake, but you don't follow the recipe precisely, and it flops — the lesson learned is to follow the recipe precisely.
In a broader sense, lessons learned are practical takeaways from past actions that help us make better decisions in the future. The next time you bake the cake, you pay more attention to each step, and it comes out perfectly.
What is lessons learned in project management?
Lessons learned is a term that refers to the experience that you gain from completing and working on a project. Project teams then apply the lessons learned to future projects or ventures (and compile and implement any new findings as they go).
In some situations, it might be helpful to gather lessons learned early on as they could help you change the outcome of your project. Going back to the cake example, if you realize the cake isn't rising correctly, you could take a step back, think about what happened the last time you baked a cake, and make your changes before you put it in the oven.
Documenting lessons learned can help you pass them on to other managers running similar ventures or projects.
Let's say you have a few coffee shops, and you want to open up a new one in a new area. You can use the lessons learned from opening the previous shops to streamline the opening of the new one. You might have found in earlier projects that you spent too much money and time shipping coffee beans, so you'll look for a local supplier in the area.
Benefits of lessons learned
Lessons learned provide valuable insights that can lead to many benefits. Project managers understand the value you get from knowing what worked and what didn't and how it can save time and resources.
Besides the obvious money and time saved, let's review a few more key benefits you can expect.
Lessons learned help you recognize potential risks early on to plan for better risk management in future projects. The most common risks are failing to meet requirements, poor quality, or scheduling mistakes, which are mitigated by becoming aware of them early on and building contingency plans into your project plan.
In the coffee shop, you might have learned that your kitchen was understaffed on weekends, and that caused the quality of the services to drop. You also noted that when baristas called in sick, the speed of the service took a massive knock. For the new shop, you'll hire a few extra servers to work on weekends to mitigate this. You also decide to keep one barista's schedule open for the weekends if another calls in sick.
Project teams use lessons learned to share their experiences and knowledge, which creates a culture of continuous learning and skill development. This, in turn, leads to higher-quality products or services. And when customers experience a better product or service, you get a better reputation (and more sales). Win-win-win.
Collaboration is such an essential facet of successful businesses and projects.
Lessons learned are great for identifying communication and collaboration gaps and bottlenecks.
Identifying communication breakdowns and addressing them up front enables better collaboration among team members.
For the coffee shop, this could mean putting a stakeholder engagement plan (SEP) in place to help you and the team engage your customers and stakeholders.
The 4-step process of lessons learned in project management
Here are four easy steps to incorporate lessons learned into your business or project management.
Step 1: Identify
First, you'll need to identify lessons from the project so that you can document them. Here are three steps to do so:
1: Send a lessons learned survey
Start by sending a lessons-learned survey to project team members. Do it early to capture feedback while it's still fresh in their minds. Collate that feedback so that you have a big-picture idea of lessons.
2: Schedule the lessons-learned session
Before the lessons learned session, appoint a session facilitator. This should be someone who isn't the project manager or boss so that team members will speak more freely.
For the coffee shop, this could be the staff manager or lead barista.
3: Conduct the lessons learned
This isn't only a chance for team members to bring up and dissect lessons learned, but also a great way to build a collaborative culture.
According to a recent report, 74% of employees say they're more productive when they feel listened to.
While there are many questions you can (and should) ask during the session, you should cover at least these three questions:
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- What could be improved?
Step 2: Document
Doing lessons learned is only helpful if you share them with the entire team and keep them for further reference.
Create a detailed lessons learned register with all the critical project information and discussion notes. Then, write an executive report of the lessons learned for the project team (and stakeholders).
The coffee shop owners keep their detailed reports with lessons learned (and corrective actions) in a shared document, which everyone on the team can access.
Step 3: Analyze
Review the information from the lessons learned survey and meeting for high-level patterns or threads. You'll want to do this as soon as possible while it's fresh (and you can avoid similar issues in ongoing work).
The coffee shop might realize that most customers are happy with the service but want more meal choices. You'd then determine what items to add to the menu and make the changes as soon as possible.
Step 4: Incorporate
Like any habit, making it part of your routine (operations) is the hard part. Turning it into a (mini) project of its own can help you to make the most of this practice.
The best way to share your findings is to create a register and communication strategy depending on the audience.
What to give stakeholders?
Stakeholders will be interested in budgetary concerns, profit margins, and long-term timelines or deadlines. They aren't too concerned with how you'll do it, so a high-level overview would work fine.
What to give team members?
Since team members will be using and applying the lessons learned in the future, they should have easy access to them, preferably, in an online register. This level of transparency will help you help them take ownership (a Kaizen concept, and one of the pillars of Lean).
Lessons-learned survey template
Here’s a lessons-learned survey template you can use or adjust to make it your own.
Was the project's initial scope clearly defined and documented?
Were there any unforeseen project issues, risks, or challenges during the project planning phase? If so, please describe:
How well did the project team collaborate and communicate throughout the execution phase?
Did the project stay within the planned budget?
Yes, under budget
Yes, on budget
No, over budget
Were project resources (e.g., workforce, equipment) effectively allocated?
Were there any significant changes or deviations from the initial project plan?
If yes, please describe:
How well did the project team adapt to changes during execution?
Did the project meet its intended goals and objectives?
Not at all
Did the project deliver the expected benefits or results?
If no, please describe why:
What improvements or enhancements do you suggest for similar projects in the future based on your experience with this one?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with the overall outcome of this project? (1 = Extremely Dissatisfied, 10 = Extremely Satisfied)
Is there anything else you want to share about your experience with this project?
Lessons learned example in a project
We've outlined some simple examples of lessons learned for different organizational levels. You can use these as a guide or adjust them to fit your lessons learned process (and register).
- Support your team. Delegate tasks appropriately and enforce realistic deadlines. Foster an environment that encourages collaboration.
- Communicate. Stay in regular contact with the team and keep communication channels open. Make sure your desires are understood.
- Praise often. Let your team members know when they’ve achieved something impactful.
For team members
- Collaborate. Check in often with your teammates and leaders and ask them for their input on decisions.
- Update regularly. Regularly sharing lessons learned with your manager(s), the entire team, and relevant stakeholders.
- Deliver high-quality work. Improve your work quality by learning new techniques and asking for validation from your manager.
- Outline the big picture. Make sure your expectations are crystal clear. Don't wait until the project is halfway done to worry about budget and time.
- Avoid risk. Examine areas of risk and try to stay ahead of large-scale issues.
- Educate the team. Learn and grow together. Help them by investing in them (and in continuous improvement).
Tips for applying or enhancing your lessons learned
There are many ways to incorporate lessons learned into your business or projects. Let’s review a few ideas.
Integrate lessons learned into your KPIs and change management process
Link lessons learned to key performance indicators (KPIs). Assess how each lesson impacts your organization's KPIs and use this data to drive strategic decisions.
Lessons learned can also be integrated with your change management processes. Make sure that any recommended changes are methodically incorporated into your business operations.
Use a root-cause analysis to get to the core problem
Sometimes, it might be hard to get to the real issue causing the problem. If and when you have to dig deeper, try a root-cause analysis.
Use project management software
Project management tools can be your central information hub (including lessons learned). Most project management apps allow you to create tasks for follow-up tasks and assign them to team members.
Use Motion to help you with your lessons learned
Motion is an innovative AI project management application that can simplify and enhance capturing and applying lessons learned in your operational processes or project management.
You can use Motion's AI meeting assistant to schedule and coordinate lessons learned meetings. Motion integrates seamlessly with all calendars and employs AI algorithms to find the best dates and times for these meetings, accommodating the availability of all team members.
Last but certainly not least, you can keep your lessons learned document in, and collaborate on them, all within Motion
Sign up for your 7-day free trial.