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How To Use Lessons Learned To Avoid Project Failure

Published on Tuesday, December 19, 2017

How To Use Lessons Learned To Avoid Project Failure


Lessons learned. Capturing lessons learned is something we should do throughout a project. There’s often a specific review point at the end of a stage or phase, or the end of the project overall, especially for capturing lessons, and yet many team leaders don’t do it. Why? Because it’s a difficult conversation to have, or difficult to capture and use the results, or they don’t have time – or some other reason.

And the impact of skipping out on lessons learned is that you run the risk of work failing in the future because the same mistakes are made again.

Spending the time on lessons learned can help you identify poor processes. Talking about what worked and what didn’t work lets you understand where you are strong and where you need to focus more time and energy on improving. This is what helps businesses grow and avoid specific failure points in the future.

You’ve got to want that, right?

So if taking the time to discuss what you learned through a particular project helps you be more successful in the future, the flip side is that it helps you avoid the causes of project failure. That has been discussed extensively elsewhere so I’m not going into what makes a project fail today. Instead, I have a suggestion.


Lessons Learned Meetings: Focus on Failure Points


I know it’s great to talk about all the wonderful things that helped make this piece of work go smoothly, and there is definitely a benefit to identifying and celebrating those. But with my project management hat on, I want to understand what we could do better next time.

Knowing that there are some common causes that create struggles for teams trying to get work done, I suggest focusing your discussions on these hot topics. It will help you structure the conversation, capture the output as a handy mindmap and then identify where you need to be spending your time.

Let’s take a look at some of the areas that cause project work to struggle and see some examples of lessons learned that might result from diving into those areas.


#1. Requirements


Requirements management is a huge topic in project management, but you really only need to know that it’s about understanding what you are supposed to do before you start, and managing any changes to what you are supposed to do as you go along. Knowing that you can see why it’s often an area of contention!

Here are some reasons why requirements can cause challenges on projects and some examples of the kind of lessons you might get in your organization.

  1. Unclear requirements
    Lesson for future projects: finalize requirements before work starts or use an iterative approach to work with uncertainty as you go.
  2. Disagreement about what the requirements are
    Lesson for future projects: find someone who has the authority to resolve conflict about requirements and make the final decision. Make sure there is a process for change management so that you have the flexibility to update the requirements if necessary.
  3. All requirements are considered essential
    Lesson for future projects: Make sure there is a way to prioritize requirements so that the team knows what to work on first.


#2. Resources


Projects don’t get done without people: as a team leader, you’ll know how important it is to have the right people on the team. Here are some common issues for when that doesn’t happen, along with some example lessons you might pick up if this happens to you.

  1. Not having enough people on the team
    Lesson for future projects: Be sure to use robust estimates so that you know how many people are required before the work starts. Then you can ask for the correct amount of people, or at least make plans for how to manage without them (e.g. let the project run on for longer) before it becomes an issue.
  2. People aren’t available to work on the project
    Lesson for future projects: Resource conflicts are a headache, so talk to your team and their line managers in advance. Work with your Project Management Office to prevent resource clashes.


#3. Task Scheduling


Trying to fit all the work in is definitely a challenge! This is where a lot of initiatives fall down: people don’t truly realize how much work there is to do and how long it will take. It makes it very difficult to create a project schedule that everyone can buy into. Here are some common challenges and the kinds of lessons you can learn from them.

  1. No contingency time
    Lesson for future projects: This is an easy one: plan some contingency time for your work! You can work out how long it should be based on whether you have experience of doing similar work in the past and how long that took, or whether this is a totally new initiative and you’re not confident in your scheduling.
  2. Optimistic estimates
    Lesson for future projects: People are often optimistic about what they can achieve in the time available (I know I am guilty of this). Ask for a second opinion on your plan, formally or informally, so you can avoid some of the pitfalls of not scheduling enough time to do the work.


#4. Planning


Project planning is more than making a list of tasks and organizing when they will be done. You have a lot of moving parts on a project (even small ones) so taking the time to do proper planning will be invaluable. Here are some common pitfalls for planning, and some examples of the types of lessons you don’t have to learn yourself if you take the advice here!

  1. Lack of processes to support the work
    Lesson for future projects: There are plenty of project management best practice guides out there, so pick an approach and use it. You can tailor it to fit your environment but you should definitely have processes for planning, change management, handling exceptions and more.
  2. Poor estimating
    Lesson for future projects: Think about how you estimate and consider using other techniques to create estimates beyond simply asking people how long they think they will take. Three-point estimating, for example, is simple to use and gives you a range of time for task completion which is more accurate than a single estimate.

This article has set out some of the lessons you could expect to learn based on typical areas of challenge for projects, but of course, your situation is unique to you. You’ll only get the benefit from lessons learned if you spend the time working out what they are, talking to your team and – most importantly – changing the way you work to avoid the difficulties you had last time. It’s the action steps that make lessons learned a valuable way to improve the success rates of your work.


About the author


Elizabeth Harrin is the author and award-winning blogger behind A Girl’s Guide To Project Management. Get her suggestions for being more productive at work on her blog.


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