Are Lessons Learned Really Necessary?

Lessons learned. In theory, it sounds like a great tool for increasing project success going forward. You gather everyone together at the end of the project and discuss what was good, what was bad, and what could have or should have been done differently. You examine the bumps along the way – trying to remember details back 3 months, 6 months, and sometimes maybe 2 years to examine incidents of issues and risks and how things were handled. And if it was a tough project, sitting across the table from a critical customer or across the phone line from a critical customer can be a tough cross to bear for the project manager and team.

I took a survey awhile back of project managers and project professionals to see how lessons learned were being carried out. It may not surprise you that 57% were either never conducting them or conducting them less than 10% of the time. That’s not a very good number. It’s tough to learn a lot of lessons that way, isn’t it? Why is this happening…what is the root cause? I have my theories…though I probably should have conducted a follow-up survey. Let’s examine…

The downside

Here are the downsides of lessons learned and why I think they often don’t happen…

  • As the project is ending, most team members are getting new project assignments to start focusing on…schedules are tight and other commitments are high
  • The customer if focused on the new solution and getting a high adoption rate in the organization…back tracking to meeting on the past is not a priority
  • The project went poorly for the delivery team – lots of issues – and facing the customer to discuss is not something they are looking forward to scheduling and conducting
  • The project went well and everyone is in denial thinking no real good could come from a one or two hour meeting analyzing how it all went on the project

So, the big question is this… is a lessons learned session all that necessary to improved performance on the next project and the one after that and so on? Do we really need it and do we benefit from it? That is a question best answered personally by every project manager reading this right now. My quick answer is “yes” even though I often have missed conducting the lessons learned session myself. I can say that when I have conducted them, I have found the takeaways to be helpful. In my case, it has usually been missed just because it’s been very difficult to bring the team and customer back to the table post-implementation to discuss such matters.

What can we do to make it happen?

So how can we fix this? A corporate mandate to “make it happen” on the lessons learned topic? Well, sure…but often it’s those same people who mandated it that also demand you get started asap on the next project with the next very important project customer. Waiting till the end, when the team is handing the solution off to technical support, shaking hands with the exiting customer and ensuring that their end user base is well-informed and has the documentation and training necessary to successful use the end solution, and preparing themselves for their next assignment doesn’t seem like a winning idea. What could we do differently to make it happen?

An alternative

I propose – and have successful tried – conducting lessons learned throughout the project. How? Build them into the schedule at times that make sense for your projects. For me, that has been at points in the project schedule where a major milestone is completed or a key deliverable is handed to the customer. It makes sense that when a phase has just been completed and a deliverable is sent to the client, that would be a good time to look at what just happened and how it went. Advantages include…

  • Learn from the good and the bad on the current project and take advantage of them in the next phase, not just on the next project. On one key project it definitely helped save a later phase from experiencing some issues that would have otherwise likely tanked the project, so I am a true believer of this advice.
  • Plain and simple…it happens. If you wait, the lessons learned session may never happen as you closeout the project. But if you build it into the current project, it becomes like a deliverable…something that has to happen to ensure all key project tasks are complete. Even if it’s only a ten or fifteen minute session several times in the middle of the project – it is still a great opportunity to learn right now from the good and bad of the project.
  • The customer satisfaction increases from this degree of lessons learned participation and oversight. Trust me, the customer notices this action and appreciates the effort to discuss and allow for their feedback. It has always served me well on the projects I have continuously conducted short lessons learned sessions throughout.

Summary / call for input

The bottom line is this… in my opinion lessons learned are really necessary. And they make good, logical, professional sense. Will they always happen? No. But by incorporating them in the current project they will be more likely to happen and the benefits of them will be realized sooner.

Readers…what are your thoughts? Do you always conduct lessons learned sessions or has it been problematic for you to get everyone together post-project to discuss? Have you tried this? After reading this, are you considering giving this a trial on your next engagement? Please share your thoughts and discuss.

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Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. He has authored more than 4,000 expert project management, best practices and business strategy articles, eBooks and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

3 Replies to “Are Lessons Learned Really Necessary?”

  1. continuous learning and improvement should be part of the mindset of all staff and roles and be carried out exactly when an issue happens as a part of daily work.
    together with a structured approach of how to handle/implement the identified improvements and how to deploy information of changes – a beginning of a continuous improvement framework that can be the key to a successful organization

  2. Brad, LL is another term for Root Cause Analysis. Perform that every time there is a disruption, or even when there is success, and you’ll implement your suggestion

  3. I agree with you Brad. Lessons Learned are valuable as they can help the organisation to improve its best practices. And doing Lessons Leaned as the project goes allows the team to make correction on the spot and build positive criticism in the team. Another aspect that is often forgotten, is what to do with the Lessons Learned repository. If these are kept on the shelve and not used by other teams, it’s knowledge tranfert that is lost.

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