Project Management Institute

Tricks of the trade


Capturing and communicating lessons learned is a critical part of knowledge transfer. Here's how to get team members to share their insights—and pay attention to others’.
Kelly Warmington, PMP

Simple spreadsheets, internal collaborative platforms, external web-based networks and even paper-based tools can help your team document its lessons learned and share them with the relevant people.

In large organizations with siloed departments and challenging communications, knowledge transfer can be difficult—and project outcomes can be handicapped. Yet knowledge transfer has the potential to improve outcomes and contribute to the dynamic pool of organizational knowledge. So how can you motivate team members to share and document their lessons learned—and heed lessons learned by other teams?

In my experience, there are four reliable ways to get the entire team excited about sharing lessons learned: Start early in the project, incorporate reflection into your processes, hold open conversations and take advantage of useful tools.

First of all, encourage team members to reflect on lessons learned from previous projects they were part of. This can occur either during kickoff meetings or while creating a risk management plan. Since everyone has unique experiences and knowledge to bring to the table, it engages people on a personal level—and creates a perfect opportunity to transfer learning within the team.

Here's another example illustrating the value of early-stage knowledge transfer. A colleague recently asked me to consult on a project to roll out an organization-wide policy. During our first conversation about the project, which hadn't yet launched, we discussed the current state of the organization compared to the desired state outlined in the policy. She listed a few departments that she and her team already had well-established relationships with and that were essentially already doing what the policy called for.

Had we not had this conversation, we might have gone into the project assuming all departments needed to change. This early opportunity for reflection allowed us to consider existing knowledge that could inform our work.

In this case, I recommended that an integral part of the project planning phase include a positively framed conversation about what some departments were already doing right.


Translating a team member's fleeting thoughts into collective, purposeful and actionable team learning is an important component of knowledge transfer. One way to achieve this is through well-facilitated, reflective practice, which can happen throughout the life of a project.

My colleagues and I recently used this method after hitting the one-year mark of an improvement initiative. We held a session in which participants passed through a series of stations. At each station, we asked for general reflections and addressed specific issues relative to the project. We also included different formats and forums for communicating ideas: written, spoken and visual. We even took five minutes at the end of the session to debrief the process itself with the participants.

Not only was the session efficient, but it generated extremely rich, actionable information about the improvement project thus far, and served as a model for soliciting feedback in the future.

At another recent event, we engaged staff in an opportunity to openly reflect on those we-should-have-known-better moments. Employees were provided with simple prompts to frame their submissions: We asked them to identify the original goal, the failure, the assumptions that were made, and most importantly, what they learned.

In this case, the act of sharing knowledge was just as valuable as details about any one failure or lesson learned. The exercise became a small step toward culture change.




Another way to encourage teams to share lessons learned comes from Peter Senge's concept of the “learning organization” from his book The Fifth Discipline.

Mr. Senge emphasizes the value of team learning—open conversations, free from assumptions, among team members. Such dialogue has the potential to bring collective knowledge to light that might not have otherwise been uncovered. Team learning is useful when determining how the lessons learned from any given project might benefit current work, downstream projects or the organization more broadly.

I've found that facilitating team learning takes time. You have to invest in people's sense of self before they will risk participating in truly open conversations. A great way to start is to be explicit about team learning as a goal. With that end in sight, team members may be more willing to contribute. Also, take the risks you want your team to take: My team and I will share uncertainties or incomplete thoughts, ask questions or try to summarize the discussion thus far. Create opportunities to fill in the blanks as a group.


Simple spreadsheets, internal collaborative platforms, external web-based networks and even paper-based tools can help your team document its lessons learned and share them with the relevant people.

Following the recent pilot launch of an internal education help desk, my colleagues implemented an evaluation strategy to support the project rollout. Pilots are all about lessons learned, so the project managers developed a one-page tool to scaffold a weekly debrief. Everyone involved with the help desk attended the 15-minute Monday morning debriefing session.

This simple approach did three important things. First, it put lessons learned front and center. Knowing the debriefing session was coming reminded us to note anything that was worth rethinking. And it made it easy for busy team members to quickly reflect. Second, it framed the evaluation. By posing specific but open-ended questions (developed with stakeholder input), the tool captured learning that was most relevant to the growth of the project.

Finally, it made capturing lessons learned concrete. Even a single page of notes is a tangible product that can be collected, summarized, discussed and formalized later into official documents. When you really want to capture day-to-day experiences, challenges and ideas for improvement, it pays to keep it simple. PM


Kelly Warmington, PMP, is program manager of knowledge translation, Learning Institute, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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