Learning to improve



What exactly is this?

This is a very good question. We are talking here about a review of the way in which you managed the project and the usefulness (or otherwise) of the project management processes and documents. We are not talking about a review of how well the business benefits are being achieved 6 months after your project has delivered (this type of review is the responsibility of the sponsor).

This review (sometimes called the ‘lessons learned review’) is carried out with the express purpose of improving future projects. You cannot change the one that has just ended, nor does a witch-hunt or blame session help at all. This review should be structured and positive, and produce some constructive recommendations for making future projects more effective.


When does this happen?

Well, the obvious answer is ‘at the end of the project’, but there are other opportunities to consider:

  • If you take over someone else’s project and need to establish exactly where the project is, this review structure is perfect.

  • At a major stage end (on a long project): the whole point about a stage end is to take stock of what has happened, and feed that knowledge into the planning of the next part of the project than again, this review structure is perfect.

  • At a major change of scope or objective: if the project is to undergo a major reshaping then a review to establish exactly where we are can be very useful – it will give a firm basis from which to move forward.

Ideally the review should be planned into the project so that all of the resources are aware of it, the budget is allocated, and you actually carry it out instead of running on to the next interesting project without a backward glance.


Who should be involved?

Ideally the whole project team should take part in the review. This will include outside suppliers and so on. This gives the widest possible spread of input to the review process. If there are large numbers of people then you may need to give thought to the administration aspects such as having a separate scribe, a facilitator, white boards etc.

Unfortunately you may find that the cost of running a full team review is prohibitive and you have to make do with just a few people. It is still worth doing, even under reduced circumstances as some useful findings may emerge.


How is it done?

The format is that of a simple meeting. The project manager should run through a checklist of project management processes and ask for constructive comments for improvements to those processes. By using a checklist the review can be kept positive (it must not turn into a personality-bashing session).

The checklist consists of six main sections:

Project basis

Was the purpose of the project clearly defined, agreed and published in a timely manner? Did the project have a business objective? Were success criteria defined and published?

Project plans

Were plans actually produced and published? Were they at the appropriate level(s) of detail? Were they used? Were they realistic? Were time/cost/quality targets met?

Control structure

Were there appropriate levels of control? Were control procedures established and followed? Was the control overhead justified?

Project team

Was this sufficient in number, experience, knowledge and motivation? Were the levels of actual availability and productivity satisfactory? Did they deliver work on time, on budget and to the appropriate quality standard? Did they conduct themselves professionally on the project? Did the sponsor play a satisfactory role on the project?

Working methods

Were useful techniques and methods employed? Were appropriate tools used? Were the company standards and guidelines supportive of the project? Were the facilities and support satisfactory?

Project management

Did you have sufficient knowledge, time and tools to be effective? Did you have the right level of authority to make decisions?


Obviously the review becomes very valuable if the initial answer to one or more of these questions is ‘no’. The follow-up question must be ‘so what – what effect did this failing have on the project?’ From that analysis the project team must begin to put together some positive recommendations for improving the situation or eliminating the failing in future. It is these recommendations that form an essential input to personal and corporate improvements in performance.


Now what?

The review meeting should produce a lessons learned report, which will list your findings and recommendations. If the purpose of the review is to improve future projects this report should be used for two courses of action:

  • Any urgent recommendations for change to the project management processes should be implemented and made known to your company’s project management community

  • Any interesting suggestions or analysis should be made available to all project managers for their consideration during the project definition phases of their next projects.

These two actions may bring some practical problems. For example, how will you distribute your report? If your organisation has a central project support office then they should be very willing to help you spread this knowledge. Your colleagues (other project managers) should be encouraged to always start new projects by looking in the project management knowledge database, even if this amounts to a scruffy filing cabinet in a back office.

Ideally the report should be stored along with all your other project documents in a computer file store with a versatile search engine set up to handle queries. That’s the ideal, but if you don’t have such facilities don’t despair, carry out the review and send your report to all your colleagues. This may be second best but better than nothing.

So, part of the lessons learned report from the Lake project might look like this:


You and your organisation will never improve quickly enough unless you start to share knowledge about projects and project management. Keep the review short and focused, and make sure you document your analysis and recommendations. The wider you can distribute these findings the better.



Build the review into the project plan, so that everyone knows that it will take place

Plan to involve everyone in the project team

Make sure the review focuses on the project management processes

Use the checklist to make sure that personalities are not dragged into the review

Document the lessons learned in a constructive way

The only reason for doing this is to improve future projects, so your recommendations are absolutely essential

File the review report centrally, and tell people about it

Make sure that the recommendations are passed around



Thanks to Mike Watson of Obsideo for providing this book


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