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Project Management and Lessons Learned

With the new year nearly upon us, there is more to do and more to learn, but are we starting the new year off with the advantage of the knowledge that we gained over the last 11+ months? This year has flown by for many, and even if it hasn’t flown by for all of us, it is about to end. So, what did we learn so far that we can apply to make next year even better?

By now, many have started thinking about their New Year’s resolutions or at a minimum have outlined or established career and personal goals for what we plan to accomplish in the coming year. A great way to kick things off is to do some reflection on the good and the bad of the last year to determine the changes we need to make in the coming months.

Even though this a great starting point for improvement, for project managers it does not take a new year to make our projects better. Making future and even current projects better can come at any time by using what has been learned to date to improve our skills or processes as we move forward.

In the last article (AUGIWorld, November 2018), I talked about managing communication. This article is about addressing ways we can use the lessons learned from both prior communications and experience to make our next project more successful.

“Lessons Learned” are both records and examples of how to make things more successful for the PM and the client as we roll into future projects.

In many companies, a Lessons Learned database is a requirement, but for others where it is not a formal requirement, it could be used as a way to make a significant impact on how future projects are approached. Think about all the things that were learned though frustration and experience and the knowledge gained from the pros and cons of the projects recently completed. In our mind, we believe that we will remember the struggles we went through and will have a mental plan to make sure we address them on our future projects. Are these thoughts being recorded or tracked somehow? Good intentions are easily wiped out by the busy days we experience on a regular basis. Without a record, key points that could benefit us moving forward will likely be missed.

If there is not currently a formal method of tracking Lessons Learned, there are a few ways that this can be addressed for the benefit of our future projects. Figure 1 shows a simple Excel example of a Lessons Learned record database. This is something you can save to your drive or network to reference or share with teammates.

Figure 1

Although this is an Excel sample, many companies have databases on their intranets or SharePoint sites that track the same type of records and are easily searchable.

If the above paragraphs have not convinced you or at least piqued your interest about the value of tracking Lessons Learned, how about we look at some examples of how such lessons can benefit us?

In any project, we will encounter issues and discover items that we never considered; but if all goes well, we will also learn to address them so they do not have a negative impact on our future projects. Not all Lessons Learned are negative; however, many are successes that allowed the project to achieve something that we did not know it could.

If keeping an Excel database/list of issues and resolutions is not your thing, you could use another method by creating a checklist. As I have learned with my team, checklists are not the most popular item—primarily due to the number of checklists that are already required in our work. BUT checklists can be a powerful way to keep you on track and provide a fail-safe method to make sure all (or most) issues are dealt with as you start, execute, monitor, and close a project.

A simple way to track what you have learned on previous projects and carry it forward is to create a checklist of things to account for and issues to avoid. For example, are there items that came up in your previous project that you or someone on your team missed? Could you track that by compiling a list of those items as well as key contacts that you can then turn into a “questions list” on future projects? Absolutely! This can be the beginning of your master project checklist (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

As you start new projects, you can go down through your list of items that were previously missed or not considered—if it is not applicable, move on to the next one. If one is applicable, make sure that someone is addressing it. With a checklist, you are more likely to make sure that these items are considered and addressed. As your checklist develops, you can bring it up early in projects and ask the appropriate questions. This shows you are aware of potential risks and shows your customers and consultants that you are an experienced PM. I will go more into the topic of risk in a future article, but know that checklists can be a major advantage to you and your project.

Figure 3

Whether you do tracking through a checklist or a formal Lessons Learned database, understand that this is a key tool to a project’s success.

Still not convinced on the importance of the Lessons Learned concept?  Let’s give a couple more details of its use and advantages.

All projects—as was discussed in the November 2018 article on communication—involve stakeholders. Stakeholders run the gamut from vendors and contractors, service providers (internal and external), to customers and end users. Each of these stakeholders have requirements, expectations, and needs. The bigger the project, the larger the list of stakeholders.

As a project manager, you will need to balance and address all the individual parties and their expectations. You will also be pulled in many directions, and it is how you address the expectations that will determine your success on not only the project, but on your career as well. There are many skills required of a good project manager, and how you master them will help you mature and become an even better PM.

People skills are important, as are organizational, financial, and scheduling skills. Depending on what industry you fall in, each skill may have a larger bearing on your success. With so many areas to work on, how can you minimize your frustration and learning curve? The trick is to learn your true strengths and find a way to address the areas you need to improve on. One way to do this is to create a way to avoid surprises that can deter you from your success.

Although some surprises can be cool and invigorating, some can be costly and detrimental to a project’s success. Surprises in projects typically come from unknowns, and unknowns are often the result of poor planning. Good planning comes from knowledge and experience. For a project manager who may frequently deal with new projects where experience is limited, a resource of previous project experiences would be welcomed. This previous experience will typically come from others and the records they provided; hence, the concept of Lessons Learned.

Think of the benefit you can derive from having a database of previous issues that came up and how they were handled. If you work in a team environment, wouldn’t it be nice to help others and yourself on future projects by having this resource available? By tracking what you learned on your projects, you are creating a future resource for all project management players to pull from—yourself included.

I encourage you to start tracking issues and their resolutions through a database or checklist as you complete your current projects and start your new ones.

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