Learning from the Past


Today is my 11th wedding anniversary.  These milestones often make me look back and reflect on the past.  Reflection is defined as a “consideration of some subject matter, idea or purpose” by Merriam-Webster.

So why is reflection important?  Well,

“Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

That is why, in Project Management, there is a lessons learned portion of the project.  This is meant to be a time of reflection.  It is a time to consider the project and learn from its successes and failures.  A time to document and to share what we have learned not just from the results of the project, but also from the processes we underwent to accomplish those goals.

Often, at the end of a project we are already working on the beginning of the next one.  We want to end the last project quickly and then move on so that we can focus on our next endeavor.  However, by shortcutting the lessons learned process we actually cause suboptimal work in the future.

I think that every project should have two summaries.  One that documents the project results and another that summarizes the lessons learned from the project.  These documents can have drastically different audiences.

Management generally will want to see the results summary.  After all, this is the typical document we create.  However, our peers and the upcoming project managers can learn more from a lessons learned summary than they will from a results summary.  The lessons learned summary should be distributed to the project management office and also to other departments that could benefit from the information collected in this investigation.

There are several sources on how to conduct a lessons learned analysis.  But there is not much on how to summarize and distribute these documents so that they are useful.  A 20 page summary will not be read by colleagues as much as they will be deleted or recycled.  Here are some tips on how to make the information useful.

  1.  Keep it Short and Sweet.  A one or two page document should be more than enough.  If you get longer than that, people will become disinterested.
  2. Use bullet points as much as possible.  These are lessons, so they should be only a couple of sentences long each.
  3. Talk about the What, Why and How.  Leave out the Who, When, and Where.  These are going to change for every project, but the What, Why and How will be the most likely things that will apply universally.
  4. Use accents to get the message across.  Using bold, italics, underlining or colors will help to get the message across about the major ideas.
  5. Keep it functional and factual.  Don’t put in your assumptions or guesses unless they are called out as such in a separate section of the document.
  6. Know your audience.  Tailor the document for those whom you are writing it.  There is no point in putting the budgetary information as a lessoned learned when you are sending it to people that are not affected by or do not affect the budget.

If this is done right, the report should be short and to the point.  It should be functional and something that can summarized even further on an index card.  The investigation needs to be thorough, but the report should be distilled.

Take the time to reflect on your projects.  Learn from them.  Then pass the knowledge on to others so that they won’t be condemned to repeat your past.

What are some of the things you have seen that work?

What lessons have you learned from others that helped you succeed?


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