The why, what, and how of learning lessons in PRINCE2 project management

Why project managers need to learn from projects

According to most studies on the subject, around 70% of all projects fail to achieve their full objectives. In my book, this simply means that 70% of projects fail. PRINCE2 understands that all projects are unique, but its methodologies and strategies are formulated to allow project managers and their teams to take each experience into the next project.

This process of learning and action should increase project success rate over time, as the experience and lessons learned from one project are used to iterate best practice in similar projects.

Who should learn from project lessons?

PRINCE2 state that it is the responsibility of everyone to discover lessons learned rather than wait for them to be provided. However, the project manager will naturally take the lead in this. It’s his or her responsibility to be both historian and archivist. Lessons and experiences should be documented to be recalled and used on future projects.

When should PRINCE2 lessons be learned and documented?

While it might be tempting to capture lessons learned at the end of a small project, it’s difficult to be comprehensive on longer projects with this strategy. A better method is to employ tools and techniques that capture lessons learned throughout the project lifecycle.

Make time to get the team together at regular or strategic intervals to discuss the good and the bad, what has worked well and what has failed. This will ensure that nothing has been forgotten and key members haven’t moved on to their next project.

What data should be captured?

Most people mistakenly believe that lessons are only learned from things that go wrong. But this is not the case. It’s just as important to document what went well, how it went well, and why. Someone should be tasked to capture and document both the good and the bad, as it happens. Good practices can then be more readily repeated while errors, mistakes, and plain bad judgement and working methods can be improved.

Situations that develop should be recorded as to risks, quality defects, vendor issues, and change requests. But this isn’t where details of lessons learned end. Other areas where you’ll need to record the good and the bad include:

  • Scope management
  • Schedule management
  • Estimation of costs
  • Budget control
  • Allocation of resources
  • Working with stakeholders
  • Process Improvement
  • Change management

Questions to be asked

When assessing performance across multiple areas and processes, ask these questions of each:

  • What is the situation?
  • What actions were taken?
  • What alternatives were considered?
  • What went well, and what can be improved?
  • What advice can be given for future projects, and what lessons can be learned?

Who has the responsibility to capture all this data?

Everybody on the project should be encouraged to give ideas and insight. However, ultimate responsibility rests with the project manager. It’s up to him or her to ensure that capturing lessons learned is a collaborative process, and that that they are recorded regularly as part of the project management process.

Building a database of lessons learned

Often, project managers find that companies are bad at communicating lessons learned effectively. Projects are commonly complicated by cross functional needs, and different divisions, departments, and even work cubicles are poorly integrated. The outcome is that the same mistakes are repeated now or in similar projects in the future. A good project management database of lessons learned can be built in five simple steps:

  1. Record lessons learned – the problems and solutions, and important project attributes, should be recorded and made readily accessible.
  2. Categorise date – accessibility is dependent on easy access to data. Make the database searchable by keywords, projects, project size, business areas, and so on.
  3. Communicate effectively – project teams must be informed when new lessons are available, and when new data is posted. The project manager must communicate effectively, and across channels that are accessible by the target audience.
  4. Encourage people to use the database – the database is a valuable resource that is often wasted, simply by lack of use. Make it a priority to encourage people to use it. It must be free and accessible. Allow the posting of comments and feedback, and invite suggestions for process improvement.
  5. Review data regularly – remove defunct and out-of-date data to maintain confidence. Maintain the database in line with two words: accurate and current.

What stops project managers and teams learning lessons learned and improving project process?

Projects are complex, costly, and time critical. It’s these reasons that are the main adversaries of effective learning during the project lifecycle. Project managers, teams, contractors, and stakeholders all have a lack of:

  • Time
  • Management support
  • Resources
  • Guidelines
  • Process to capture project data

The biggest barrier to capturing lessons learned is time management. That’s why it’s important to factor in time to every stage of a project to capture data and learn from it. Do this, and you should crush that 70% project failure rate.

Next time, I’ll look at the roles and responsibilities defined by PRINCE2.

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