Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2011/09/04

A lesson I’ve learned: Effective “Lessons Learned”


The red-headed stepchild of the project management profession is the discipline of capturing and applying “lessons learned.” The idea is simple: record what went well and what didn’t go well so that we can do better next project. Unfortunately, as PMs, we get busy in the day-to-day of managing our projects and neglect this crucial and powerful habit. Here are three tips for capturing lessons and improving your craft:

1. Classify the lesson:

This may seem obvious, but there are different kinds of lessons. While you, as a PM, may learn 10 to 1,000 lessons during your project, not all lessons can be extrapolated to all projects. This is why it is crucial for effective PMs to properly classify lessons. Here are the categories I keep in mind–it is possible for a lesson to show up in more than one category:

  1. Applicable to only this specific project: (i.e., “We should have has Joe work on requirements gathering instead of Sarah based on their skill-sets”)
  2. Applicable to this type of project: (e.g., cloud computing project, new construction)
  3. Applicable to me as a project manager: These are tips or insights about yourself or how to be more effective as a professional (e.g., “Use questions to lead meetings, rather than statements in order to gain buy-in”)
  4. Applicable to my project management office (PMO): A good project manager acts as a curator of the knowledge gained drink the project and brings back to his or her team, lessons that are most useful to a broader audience. A great example of this sort of lesson is one that involves your company’s internal processes. (e.g., be sure to have the contracts team review the licensing terms before kicking off to avoid cost overruns)

2. Capture lessons during the project:

If you wait until the end of a project to capture what you’ve learned, you will only remember the really big mistakes and victories in the project. A project is the result of thousands of decisions, some large and some small. We simply cannot remember each decision or trace all of the cause-and-effect relationships between decisions and outcomes once enough time has gone by. A best practice is to keep a log and jot down lessons as they are learned. Be sure to capture:

  1. What was the scenario?
  2. What worked well or didn’t work well?
  3. What should we start doing, keep doing or stop doing?

3. When possible, apply lessons right away:

Regardless of the category of lesson, you have one more thing to consider: can this be applied right now or just noted and filed away at the end of the project?

  1. Inside the project: If the project is ongoing, you may be able to make an immediate change. Recently, I received feedback that the sprint planning meetings** for a project I was managing was inefficient and frustrating, especially for remote team members. After asking around to get more information from the team, I made a change in how we prepared for this meeting and the structure of the meeting itself. This made a big difference in the next sprint.
  2. For the project management office: In the case of lessons that are relevant for the PMO, I make it a point to share appropriate lessons with my PMO team at our weekly meetings, perhaps update or create a template or update our “how-to” guide.


**Sprint planning meeting: This is a meeting that occurs in Agile development in which the team plans the work to be done in the next block of time. Usually, sprints (aka, iterations) are a week or two in length.

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