Lessons learned

sharing the knowledge


What does it take to become a good project manager? What does it take to become an effective competent or even great project manager? To grow as a project manager it is important to continuously improve both project management knowledge and skills. Training programs are an ideal way to acquire project management knowledge; however, capturing and applying lessons learned is an excellent way to develop and enhance specific project management skills.


Lessons learned are the documented information that reflects both the positive and negative experiences of a project. They represent the organization's commitment to project management excellence and the project manager's opportunity to learn from the actual experiences of others. Experienced project managers recognize the importance of lessons learned as a tool for project success. To be effective lessons learned should be relevant and retrievable. It is not enough just to capture lessons learned; the real opportunity for professional growth comes from the application of lessons learned which can occur across projects, organizations or industries. This paper explores a methodology and tools for the capture, classification, storage and easy retrieval of lessons learned. Emphasis is placed on the importance of using lessons learned, and how categorizing lessons learned using key words and a having a well maintained repository will make applying lessons learned easier.


A vast amount of learning takes place on every project. With increased project manager and team member turnover, subject matter expertise is not always readily available. Historical information, in the form of lessons learned provides a learning opportunity for new project managers and team members. However, there are common beliefs held regarding lesson learned which include:

  • Every project is different and learning from one project is not applicable to other projects.
  • There is not enough time for learning. We have to complete the project.
  • Nothing ever happens after lessons learned are captured.

It is true that every project is different but it is also true that projects use repeatable product development and project management processes. Learning from project to project in the form of tools, techniques and timing is possible. Also leadership skills required to manage project teams can be applied to other teams in the future. Therefore the learning from one project is applicable to other projects.

In the past it was said there is not enough time for planning and we later realized that the development of good solid plans made it easier to monitor and control projects. To make time for learning will allow us to do better planning which will further improve our ability to monitor and control projects. One suggestion is to plan for learning. Make reviewing lessons learned a part of your project planning activities and conducting lessons learned a part of you executing process activities.

Lessons learned can be used to improve future projects and future stages of the current projects. If there is no defined process or tool in place for using lessons learned, the act of capturing lessons learned is often wasted. The greater value is received from the use and the sharing of the knowledge gained. To improve our project performance, it is our responsibility to learn to do projects better. It is important to understand the value of learning by answering the questions: who learns? How to learn? When to Learn? And what can be learned?

Who Learns

Lessons Learned represent the organization's ability to remember what has transpired and to lay the foundation for continued success. It is the responsibility of the individual to want to learn and then take the opportunity to learn. All project stakeholders have an opportunity to learn from project work. Project managers, team members and leadership can all participate in the lessons learned sessions, review the lessons learned reports and make decisions on how to use the knowledge gained. Learning allows you to be recognized as a value to the organization and awards you with sustained career growth.

How to Learn

Learning is gained from the process of performing the project. We learn by documenting lessons learned from our current projects and also reviewing lessons learned from previous project prior to starting new projects. We learn from our own project experiences as well as the experiences of others. Sharing lessons learned among project team members prevents an organization from repeating the same mistakes and also allows them to take advantage of organizational best practices.

When to Learn

It is not necessary to wait until the end of the project for the learning to occur. Lessons can be identified at any point during the project. A lessons learned session should be conducted at different time frames based on the criticality and complexity of the project. Key times are at the end of the project, at the end of each phase and real time – when you learn the lesson.

If you wait until the end the project for a large project you miss some of the key lessons. Because of the time that has elapsed, project team members may forget some of the things they learned or team members assigned to the project in the early phases may no longer be part of the project during the later phases.

What Can Be Learned

Specific skills required to manage the project and do the work can be learned. This learning can occur through the use of project management processes and tools, from performing the technical work required by the project, review and revising business processes and the leadership and teamwork required to perform project activities. Innovative approaches and good work practices can be shared with others.

Lessons Learned Process

The Project Management Institute (PMI®) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines a process as a set of interrelated actions and activities performed to achieve a specified set of products results or services (2004, p. 367). The purpose of a lessons learned process is to define the activities required to successfully capture and use lessons learned. (See Exhibit 1 for our suggested lessons learned process.)

Lessons Learned Process

Exhibit 1 – Lessons Learned Process

Identifying lessons learned

Step one of the lessons learned process is to identify comments and recommendations that could be valuable for future projects.

The activities for identifying lessons learned are:

  • Issue project survey and lessons learned template to the team
  • Conduct lessons learned session

Project Survey and Template

The project survey provides the team with a list of questions about project activities. These questions have scores that range from low to high which allows the lessons learned participant to quantitatively identify what went well and what didn't. These responses will be used by the lessons learned facilitator to guide the discussion during the lessons learned session.

The survey should be organized by category. The use of categories will ensure key information is not missed and will later help to focus the discussion. Standard categories for each project should be defined and additional categories specific to a project can be added. Suggested categories include project management, technology, communication, business processes, requirements, design and build, testing and implementation. These categories can be subdivided into more detailed categories. For example, project management can be divided into initiation, planning, control and closing. Planning can then be further divided into project schedule, risk analysis, etc.

Three key questions should also be included on the survey:

  • What did we do right
  • What did we do wrong
  • What do we need to improve

The lessons learned template provides the participants with a tool for identifying the type of information required for the lessons learned repository. It ensures that there will be consistency in capturing the information so when the time comes to use the information it is available and understandable. The lessons learned template should include fields for the description of the lesson learned, discussion of activities the resulted in the lesson learned, analysis of what went well and what did not work, and recommendations. Key words should always be identified. Key words are ultimately one of the determinants of success in utilizing lessons learned (Prichard, 1997, p. 94), and are essential for easy retrieval.

The survey and the template can be viewed as prework by the participants because they can review the requirements and be better prepared to respond during the lessons learned session. By distributing these documents prior to the lessons learned session provides team members who will not be able to attend, an opportunity to provide information.

Lessons Learned Session

A lessons learned session focuses on identifying project success and project failures, and includes recommendations to improve future performance on projects. Project managers have a professional obligation to conduct lessons learned sessions for all projects with key internal and external stakeholders, particularly if the project yielded less than desirable results (PMI, 2004, p. 230). The lessons learned session is a very important part of the lessons learned process. If the session is not successful, the organization loses out on the lessons learned opportunity.

Lessons learned sessions should be facilitated by someone other than the project manager. The lessons learned facilitator should be prepared and should have sent the project survey and lessons learned template to lessons learned session participants in advance. In preparation for the lessons learned session, the facilitator should review key documents and project survey results, and then prepare a list of questions specific to the project. The facilitator can use lessons learned categories on the template, survey and during the session to help focus the participants thinking and discussion.

Finally, the facilitator should always ask the three key questions.

  • What did we do right
  • What did we do wrong
  • What do we need to improve

Reporting lessons learned

Step two of the lessons learned process is to document and share findings.

After lessons learned are captured, they should be reported to project stakeholders. Different types of reports can be produced based on the audience. The lessons learned participants should receive a detailed report of the data captured during the lessons learned session and should be given time to respond to the accuracy of the report. The project team should receive a copy of the final report even if they did not participate in the lessons learned session. The final report should be stored with the other project documentation.

A summary report should be prepared for leadership. This report should present an overview of the lessons learned process and a summary of project strengths – what went well, project weaknesses – what went wrong and recommendations – what we need to improve.

Analyzing lessons learned

Step three of the lessons learned process is to analyze for application of results.

All organizations should have an independent team assigned with the specific responsibility to evaluate and analyze the lessons learned repository for best practices. One of the responsibilities of this specific team would be to ensure that best practices are incorporated into existing methodologies, processes and procedures, and personnel performance evaluations. Another contribution this team can provide is the analysis of repository data where there are re-occurring problems in failed or late projects. This team should be empowered to recommend solutions for future avoidance of similar problems. Possible solutions could be: updated/enhanced required training, updates to policies and procedures, enhancement to methodologies, more frequent project status review meetings with key stakeholders, more active participation and accountable responsibilities of project sponsor(s), just to name a few. The team should also be looking for reoccurring project risks to determine if there is something that can be done to actively address risk mitigation at a corporate level.

Metrics should be generated based on data from the lessons learned repository and shared across the company and with all management teams. The value of this type of reporting and at this level can help ensure that lessons learned become a part of the corporate culture and are perceived as valuable tool in the success any company. Types of metrics to be considered are statistics for both successful and failed projects.

  • From Successful Projects
    • Best practices
    • Re-occurring root causes
    • Types of projects
    • Project size – resources and cost
    • Resource availability
    • Length of projects
    • etc
  • From Failed Projects
    • Re-occurring lessons learned
    • Re-occurring root causes
    • Types of projects
    • Project size – resources and cost
    • Resource availability
    • Length of projects
    • etc

Storing lessons learned

Step four of the lessons learned process is to store in a repository.

One of the biggest challenges in having an effective Lessons Learned Program within any company is determining what tool to use to efficiently store and retrieve lessons learned data. In conversations with representatives from various companies doing business around the world, the challenge is the same. There are many companies that require project teams to document lessons learned and enter into their in-house repositories, but unfortunately, that is where most lessons learned efforts end.

What is the best lessons learned software tool available? The answer is “it depends”. We wish we could tell you that there is one “be all to end all” lessons learned software package. There are many effective tools that can be used. The best place to start is to work with the software tools currently available within your company. Set up your initial lessons learned database in an “in-house” tool that can provide reasonable access across a company intranet or LAN. The key to a successful lessons learned software tool is: 1) use a clearly defined template for data consistency (example at end of this paper), 2) create easy to use software screens for data entry, 3) allow for easy to use search capability on key data fields, 4) create easy to read output reports and 5) ideally, provide for the ability to run reports that will either generate metric reports or data to produce metric reports. Examples of lessons learned tools being used in companies worldwide are:

  • IBM: LotusNotes
  • Novell: Linux Systems, Linux Desktop, OpenOffice, iFolder
  • Microsoft: Sharepoint, Word, Excel, Access
  • Oracle:

This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, but hopefully, this provides a starting point for the most common enterprise softwares. It is critically important to make sure that whatever software chosen has a search capability that can be used. The biggest challenge that most lessons learned repositories have is the inability to get useful information out.

Retrieving lessons learned

Step five of the lessons learned process is to retrieve for use on current projects.

By far, the most critical aspect of a lessons learned repository is the ability to retrieve the valuable historical information stored in the repository. Why would you need to worry about historical information? What value does it provide? The value of successful retrieval of lessons learned data is two-fold: 1) the value to the project manager and 2) the value in the analysis and incorporation of best practices and process improvements into the corporate culture.

In order for the repository to be helpful to the project manager, he/she must be able to search using key words to help narrow down the search in the repository. This is why it is so important for the lessons learned template to be consistently used across all projects. Analyzing previous lessons learned can provide great tools for the project manager of a new project. The project manager should be looking for: 1) previously successful projects, practices and processes to duplicate and incorporate into the new project's approach; and 2) early detection of known and potential pitfalls from previous project failures. This search in the repository should be done by the project manager prior to the project's kick off meeting and can be the first pass in identifying potential project risks and mitigation strategies.

Sharing the Knowledge: Lessons Learned

We have shared with you several things that we hope you can utilize to either initiate of improve your lessons learned processes and repositories. We have also provided you with justification for the importance of a lessons learned repository and the long term value that can be gained if the stored lessons learned are reviewed and analyzed on a regular basis.

Make sure that capturing project lessons learned is part of your procedures and an expected deliverable from your project management and product methodologies. Ensure that project teams work together to document project best practices and areas of improvement for the next project. Lessons learned meetings are generally held at the end of a project, but consider it a valuable effort at the completion of each project phase.

Chose a software that your company already has in place to establish your initial lessons learned repository. Develop a lessons learned template to allow of consistency of data entry and pre-define some basic search reports to assist the project manager. More advance search capabilities can be added as the repository matures with data. Make sure there is there are understandable and easy to access procedures for the use of your lessons learned repository.

The final important step to ensure a successful lessons learned program is a commitment from senior level management. That commitment is visible through regular repository metrics review, action taken to implement best practices, and support to improve negative or re-occurring project trends.


DOE Lessons Learned Program on January 15, 2006 from http://www.eh.doe.gov/ll/

Peters, Lee A. (1999, October) The Learning Project: Perpetually Improve Projects by Learning, PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium 1999, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Project Management Institute. (2004) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Pritchard, Carl L. (1997, September) Lessons Learned in the Twenty-First Century: Haven't We Been Here Before?, PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium 1997, Chicago, Illinois.

©2006, Sandra Rowe and Sharon Sikes
Originally published as part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain



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