Are you learning from project to project?


by Neal Whitten, PMP, Contributing Editor

THIS TEST IS MADE UP of only two questions. The answer sought for each question is a simple “yes” or “no.” See how you do.

Question 1: Do you work in an organization where it is mandatory to perform a post-project review when a project or a major phase of a lengthy project has completed?

Question 2: Do you work in an organization where it is mandatory for the project manager of a new project to go before a small review board to prove that the lessons learned from recent projects will be directly applied to this project?

If you answered “yes” to both questions, you are in a very, very small minority. Yet, the benefits of an organization that can answer “yes” to both questions can be striking. If you can answer “yes” only to the first question, what's the point? Where's the improvement occurring? Where are we institutionalizing the lessons learned?

If you're among the 99 percent of us who fail this simple test—but shouldn't—you could be in a position of weakness, to the detriment of your current and upcoming projects.

Picture the following: You work for a company that is five years old. Each year there are 10 projects, each of one-year duration. Today, at the end of five years, your company has the experience of having conducted 50 projects. The founders of the company had the foresight to insist on learning from both their mistakes and their successes; therefore, it was mandatory to perform a post-project review at the end of each project. Furthermore, it was mandatory, at the start of a new project, for the project manager to convince a small review board that the most important lessons learned from recent projects will be aptly applied to the new project.


Neal Whitten, PMP, president of The Neal Whitten Group (, is a speaker, trainer, consultant and author in project management and employee development. His books include Managing Software Development Projects: Formula for Success and Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World. Send comments on this column to [email protected].

At the end of the first year of this scenario, there were 10 post-project reviews and a lot of lessons to learn. The 10 new projects for the second year benefited from the lessons learned from the first year. At the end of the second year, the post-project reviews revealed the next layer of lessons to learn. The 10 projects started in the third year benefited from the most recent lessons learned. And so on, until we have experienced five years of consistent improvement.

It is my assertion that the company depicted in this scenario will become a major force in whatever industry it serves. The products and services produced will be among the most advanced and successful, the employees will be among the most productive, the quality of the work will be among the best, the morale will be among the highest, and the customers the most satisfied. Why? Because we consistently get better in designated key areas by deliberately analyzing, measuring and improving our performance.

Isn't it interesting that we expect professionals in other professions to continually improve, but we don't expect the same from ourselves, from our organizations, from our projects. For example, we expect an athlete to continually improve his or her skills and “stats.” We expect a sports team to go over the mistakes and successes of the last game and to review the performance and weaknesses of the upcoming opponent. We expect NASA to continually learn from every earlier space launch and mission. We expect airlines … you get the idea.

We are paid professionals. We need to demonstrate the leadership and boldness to insist on organizations that perpetuate self-improvement. For example, don't merely add an activity to a new project plan that says the project manager must “review lessons learned from the most recent post-project reviews.” Reviewing something, by itself, usually yields little improvement. However, having to convince a review board of three members that you have appropriately applied the most significant lessons learned to your new project can yield marked improvements. If you cannot convince the review board, then you must replan and return to confront the review board until you can demonstrate the application of these lessons.

ARE YOU LEARNING from project to project? You are a paid professional. Try this at work! images

PM Network March 1999



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