Project Management Institute

Learning how to learn


by John Sullivan, PMP, Contributing Editor

AS A PRACTITIONER OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT I am constantly trying to learn how to be more effective. The odds are against me. Some studies claim that more that half of all projects are late and that almost every project goes over budget. This disturbs me, since we advocate a “lessons learned” exercise for every project—a postproject review that attempts to determine what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what could have been done differently that would have prevented the wrong from occurring.

My professional angst led me to a psychologist: Dr. Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions [MIT Press, 1999]. Klein has studied decision-making in a variety of professions, from fire-fighting to nursing. He tries to understand “how people handle all of the typical confusions and pressures of their environment, such as missing information, time constraints, vague goals, and changing conditions,” he says. If that description sounds like your project, read on.

According to Klein, while decision-making seems to favor the experienced person (an obvious conclusion), the experience must often be put into context to be made meaningful (a not-so-obvious conclusion). In the book, he cites a group of Midwestern U.S. firefighters trying to battle an oil tank fire. They had experience fighting fires—mostly barn and garage fires—but the different context of the fire (an oil tank) meant their experience was not meaningful and they ended up calling in consultants to extinguish the fire. “Years of experience are not beneficial if we cannot make meaning of and apply the experience,” says Klein. “That is why building a meaningful experience base is important.”

For the profession of project management, that meaningful experience base, if it exists at all, has been lessons learned. This is our attempt to extract and capture knowledge for future use. (See “Knowledge Management and Project Management” in the February 2000 PM Network.) My attempts to relate Klein's work to project management have led me to conclude that we need to continue doing lessons-learned exercises—but we need to do them earlier and more often.

For most projects, the lessons-learned task is literally an afterthought, done at the end of a project (if the project hasn't been canceled due to delays or overruns). By this time, much of what happened has been lost. Doing lessons learned earlier and at more frequent intervals throughout the project increases the chances of recording more accurate information. The key here, according to Klein, is “to reduce the time between the occurrence and the outcome of an event.”

The reason for doing it more often is to increase the amount of data you collect. That doesn't mean that more data is better (we're after knowledge here, not data), but it increases the chances that you'll capture “a prior case with a known outcome and a semi-known set of causes,” says Klein. More frequent recording of lessons learned may increase the probability of linking cause to effect (though that is never guaranteed). The purpose of all this is to build experience that can be applied to future projects to improve their results.

But a better experience base is worthless if not applied. Getting it applied involves changing top management, and there have been thousands of articles written about that topic. A better way for our profession to apply lessons learned to the legions of people doing the daily work of project management is to provide more case-based training.

Case-based training focuses on the practice of project management. It allows students to use their experience (or the lack of it) to interpret what they thought would happen in a certain case: why the project was late, how scope increased, and so forth. While training is still no substitute for experience, case-based training serves to reduce the real-world delay between event and feedback and can sometimes link cause and effect more directly. Klein believes that inexperience is a greater factor in bad decisions than faulty reasoning, and case-based training (used in the professions of medicine and law) provides a way to simulate experience in a shorter period of time.

AN OLD JOKE DEFINES insanity as “doing the same thing and expecting different results.” It appears that our traditional lessons-learned exercise and teaching methods haven't done much to improve our track record. I suggest we consider changing them, because according to the statistics, we still have a lot to learn. ■


John Sullivan, PMP, is a founding member of PMI's Dayton/Miami Valley Chapter. Send any comments on this column to

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

May 2000 PM Network



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