Why are lessons learned so difficult to learn?

kimiz carrosselLessons learned are the major building blocks to ensure effective organizational learning occurs.  Only be taking the time to reflect after each major project can teams understand what went right and what went wrong.  Once this analysis has been conducted, steps can then be taken to ensure that the organization continues doing the right things and avoids making the same mistakes again.

What do need to learn such lessons?  Firstly, the organization must ensure that project managers see this analytical activity as a critical activity that is part of the overall project management lifecycle.  While the lessons learned analysis is typically conducted at the end of a project, complex and longer term projects that span several years will require multiple analyses to be conducted systematically during the life time of the project.

Second, the organization must ensure that project teams are given the time, space and incentives to carry out a lessons learned meeting.  Sometimes incentives are not enough and stronger measures are needed to ensure project teams meet to analyze lessons learned:  many organizations will not allow project team members, including project managers, to officially close or sign off a project until lessons learned have been identified and documented.

Last but not least, the organizational culture must be compatible with such a strong learning focus.  The value of learning lessons from each project experience must be ingrained within the values of the organization.  Employees should be aware of this, they should have adequate training to carry it out and they should be surrounded by management role models who actively engage in the lessons learned analysis.

What makes it so hard to learn such lessons?  Much of the challenge lies in the transient nature of projects:  they have a finite duration and once they are completed, the team is dispersed to other projects.  Projects are not stable organizational units but put together and taken apart continuously. This means there is a limited opportunity to ensure that the analysis of what went right and what went wrong must be done quickly – the shorter the project deadline, the more quickly this activity needs to be scheduled.  In addition, there is always a question of how generalizable or how transferable each type of lesson is:  was the experience so unique that it really cannot be readily applied to other projects?  If so, there will be a very limited scope for the lesson.  On the other hand, many lessons turn out to be highly generalizable and may even exceed the professional domain of the original project:  for example, issues revolving among communication among team members.

The major steps in a lessons learned cycle are to identify, analyze, document and then apply lessons to new situations.  Lessons are invaluable and while they are often identified and documented at the end of a project, they are then learned when starting a new project as project managers and team members consult the collective intelligence and experience of their organization.

*Dr. Dalkir is an Associate Professor of Knowledge Management (KM) Stream at the School of Information Studies at McGill University.  She has a Ph.D. in Educational Technology, an MBA in Management Science and Management Information Systems and a B.Sc. in Human Genetics. Dr. Dalkir teaches courses in KM Foundations, Knowledge Taxonomies, Intellectual Capital Management and Communities of Practice.  Kimiz wrote Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice which has had an international impact on KM education and on KM practice.  Dr. Dalkir pursues research on the effectiveness of knowledge processing in both profit and non-profit organizations, learning in peer networks and measurement frameworks for assessing knowledge management success. She recently published Intelligent Intelligent learner modeling in real-time and co-edited Utilizing Evidence-Based Lessons Learned for Enhanced Organizational Innovation and Change and is currently part of an industrial-university research consortium that is looking at facilitating collaboration in the aeronautical industry.