One Size Lessons Learned Don’t Fit All

I’ve been pondering why lessons learned systems rarely work within a project environment. There is a lot of research published on the topic, but I’d like to add my own take on it. I’ve concluded that one size lessons learned systems don’t fit all.

Lessons learned systems tend to be process heavy, focused on learning from lessons often without understanding how the information will be consumed. As a result, lessons are typically anodyne and often disregarded by those who should be leveraging them.

If organisations want to leverage the experience from project delivery they will require a systems approach, decomposing the user journey and user stories and resolving each one separately to create an integrated system tailored to the specific demands of the business. i.e. ensure that your system for leveraging intellectual capital from past projects is tailored to how your organisation works.

There are some key variables that influence how successful organisations can learn from their lessons, which require careful consideration:

  • Pipeline. Does your portfolio comprise a pipeline of similar projects which can build incrementally on the intellectual capital of the previous job or are your projects very different? One requires an organisational approach to leveraging experience but if projects are very different then you may need to reach beyond organisational boundaries.
  • Workforce. Do you have a stable workforce that has a low volume of turnover or staff rotation in key roles, do people move jobs every 2-3 years or do you have a heavily contractorised workforce. If the latter, are communities of practice and peer assist the best solution when your ‘peer’ has left the organisation for the next contract?
  • Body of knowledge lessons? Are the majority of your project related lessons about the implementation of the P3M body of knowledge or about specialist technology or implementation challenges? The solution to how this experience is consumed will be very different.
  • Complexity. Does your portfolio operate as a series of turnkey projects where there is a high degree of stability in the project environment or do you operate in a world surrounded by complexity? Lots of dynamic interfaces in a changing world? The experience with the former can easily be codified, but success on the latter is driven by approach rather than a recipe.
  • Cutting edge. Is your portfolio operating at the cutting edge of technology? If you are a true innovator then you will experience failure and the key to success is learning from this failure. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it helps to drive competitive advantage. How do you capture this knowledge within your organisation to prevent failures from being repeated?

Lessons learned systems tend to work for pipelines of similar projects but fall into disrepute as the key variables highlighted above create barriers to successful exploitation.

I’d recommend that readers of this blog also have a look at the SyLLK model that provides a useful framework for helping organisations to align the various parameters that enable experience to be leveraged.