Avoiding the Lessons Learned “Black Hole”

Black hole

By: Amy Baughn

We have all been there; we get to the end of the project and hold the perfunctory “Lessons Learned” workshop.  There are a lot of nice moments covering what went well, perhaps some timid weighing in on things that could have gone better.  The information is documented….and then falls into a black hole never to be seen again.  It could be argued that the end-of-project approach is a colossal waste of time.

The intent behind “Lessons Learned” is to benefit future projects with:

  • Improved quality
  • Reduced risk
  • Cost and timeline efficiencies

As project managers, if we are not proactively managing lessons learned throughout the project life cycle, we are missing out on these benefits!  There is a better way to tackle Lessons Learned to ensure these benefits are achieved, and that is through an iterative Lessons Learned process.  Rather than wait until the end of the project, Lessons Learned should be documented along the way while they are still top of mind.  By doing this, lessons learned will be tangible and specific, making the lessons much more likely to be applied to future projects.

As a project manager, you have regular weekly tasks – updating your project plan, updating your risk log, creating status reports, etc.  Lessons Learned documentation should become a part of this standard bundle of weekly artifacts and processes.  Simply take a few minutes each week to think through what went well and what didn’t, and if there is something significant that would help someone on a future project, then formally document it – in the moment.

Here are some simple “do’s” to follow as a project manager in terms of ‘Lessons Learned’ to make this a useful and effective tool and practice:

  • Consider and document Lessons Learned over the full cycle of the project – do not wait until the end of the project
  • Remember, Lessons Learned can be positive or negative – we want to capture things that went well in addition to things that could be improved!
  • Lessons Learned should be captured in a central location – they could be entered in a form and stored in a database or could be something as simple as a shared spreadsheet. This doesn’t have to be complicated.
  • To drive even more value, make your repository searchable or add categories/filters. When a new project manager joins the team, or you get a new project, the project manager can then go and search for related topics
  • Continue to hold a formal ‘Lessons Learned’ session at the closeout of your project to review all that has already been captured, capture any additional items, and ensure the perspective of all team members is considered
  • Use your “living lessons learned repository” to help drive important stakeholder conversations to communicate where you see risk, input into cost, the importance of change management, etc as you take on future projects


And conversely, here are some do not’s:

  • Do not hoard your lessons learned for yourself – share with your project management peers
  • Do not wait – lessons learned should start from project initiation and go all the way through project closure
  • Do not make vague entries – the more specific you can be, the better
  • Do not enter lessons learned in a vacuum – gather input from all team members along the way

This all likely seems straightforward, yet many project managers are not using this approach or managing lessons learned in an effective way.  By adjusting your approach to supplement the formal and traditional Lessons Learned with an iterative and regular practice, Lessons Learned will no longer be a big black hole.

Effective management of Lessons Learned will help you manage your projects effectively, avoid risk, and even help with difficult stakeholder conversations.  These simple tweaks to your project management approach will help elevate your quality of project delivery.

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