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Lessons Learned: Why Don't we Learn From Them?

~ By Derry Simmel

Project team reviewing lessons learned

Still thinking about lessons learned and my biggest question is why don't we learn from them?

Here is the situation that has come up to make me think again. My current programme has a weekly meeting with the Governance board. We quickly review the status of the major projects, go over any big issues and review/approve any changes (as part of change management).

Over the past few weeks I have been getting pressure from my programme managers to cancel these meetings and go to a once-monthly schedule. The main reasons seem to be that there are too many people in the meeting, the topics are repetitive, the board gets weekly status reports, and that the meeting is boring/waste of time.

A little about these meetings: when there are no major issues or actions to be taken, the meeting runs less than ½ an hour. We also hold one meeting monthly with the board that runs a little longer - the last one was 45 minutes, and it's never been more than an hour. By my calculations that's 2 hours and 15 minutes of time during an average 4 week month - or 1.4% of a 160 hour month.

Now, the programme managers want to reduce this to 1 hour a month or .63% of their time per month. How unbelievably efficient we must be if a .8% savings is going to make any difference!

I don't want to think bad things about people, but less than 1% of your time on somewhat boring over-communications? What about all those lessons learned - our previous project stated multiple times that the weekly board meeting was helpful! How can we not learn?

I have some thoughts on this.

We Think the Lessons Don't Apply to Us

This, I think, is our most common problem. I have frequently observed that project teams can be very optimistic and confident. In the example above, the consensus was that we all communicate with our bosses and they communicate with each other, so why repeat that? In my case it seems that unlike every project in the recorded history of man, our project has such good communications that we can dispense with the onerous 1% burden and spend that time on better things. Ha.

I think this over-optimism and belief that this project is different is one of the reasons we do not learn. For some reason when we get on a project we think that a positive attitude will overcome stupid actions. How many times have you brought up a risk or an issue or mentioned that since we are over budget now we will probably not recover and been told that you needed to "get with the programme" or "think positively" or whatever. If you are out of gas, all the positive thinking in the world will not fill the tank, why do we think it can be done for a project?

We Want to Get Things Done

In looking at lessons learned, many times we find things like - should have had a better schedule, or better budgeting, or more communications, spent more time on requirements, etc. All of these things relate to how we do the work, not what we work on. Talking about how things get done or working on how things get done does not, in and of itself, get anything done. This is one of the reasons so many people hate planning - planning is not doing and we all like doing.

Lessons like "spend more time on requirements" are not easy to implement because we don't want to spend time on requirements. Heck "we all know what needs to be done, let's just get to work." Bet you never heard that before! Or, in my case, a lesson that weekly meetings were beneficial and kept everyone informed is dismissed by a "we talk about this stuff all the time; I'm needing to get things done, not meet." And so on.

The enemy here is action and the idea that action is better than thought or discussion or planning. I believe the correct action is better than either of these and as we have all found so many times, doing things wrong takes far more time and money to correct than it would have had we just done some more thinking, or planning, or meeting.

There is no visible reward for getting your requirements right. There is no tangible product from having good communications. These things are unrewarding in and of themselves they produce no immediate feedback, therefore we have a difficult time engaging in these activities or even really believing that they are useful.

Bottom Line

The sad truth is that these lessons learned are useful. That time spent in doing the work better is time well spent. That getting it right the first time is cheaper and easier than doing it now and fixing it later. That keeping your boss up to date can save you from being called on the carpet. But we will not all learn this, maybe some of us will, maybe not. I guess those of us that understand this need to keep calmly and clearly reminding those who do not. Boy - talk about fun!


Derry Simmel has been in IT and project management for over 15 years. He has started 3 PMOs in the last 6 years, the latest of which is with a large project for the State of South Carolina. Derry has an MBA from University of Phoenix and a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of South Carolina. He currently serves as the Vice-Chairman of Membership for PMI's Project Management Office Special Interest Group and as the VP of Programmes for the PMI Midlands Chapter. Derry maintains All About Project Management Offices, a professional blog covering all aspects of PMO.


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