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Author: Paul Taplin

Lessons Learned or Opportunities Lost?

Let’s say upfront that conducting a Lessons Learned process at the completion of a major initiative or project is a highly desirable and admirable thing to do.

But before you get too comfortable about the lessons learned process that you are about to manage or participate in, please consider some of the pitfalls that can plague the process.

Less is more

The measure of a successful lessons learned (LL) exercise is not the number of “lessons” identified but the relevance, quality and impact of the recommendations that you can pass on to future readers.

Three to five key recommendations will have far more impact than a two hundred line spreadsheet. The object of the exercise is to extract key learnings for future use on similar projects.

The LL exercise will undoubtedly generate a significant number of lessons, but these need to be reviewed and prioritised for your final output. Consider scoring the draft lessons to highlight those that are of sufficient importance and relevance to be worthy of inclusion. In the final analysis, discard lessons that are highly specific to your project, unlikely to be replicated, or items that are not supported by the majority of contributors.

The right participants

Ideally, participants should be invited to contribute from the broad spectrum of players who were involved at all levels in the project, from areas of strategy, planning, process and delivery. However, in inviting a democratic slice of players there are some behaviours that need to be understood and compensated for.

The strategists may want to concentrate on the politics and abstract aspects of the project, and ignore the nitty-gritty of implementation.

The planners and process people may want to concentrate of the efficacy of the process rather than the outcomes.

The delivery people, especially those that were deep within the delivery teams, may have a limited horizon, concentrating on specific issues that may only be relevant to that project.

So care needs to be taken in preparing the invitation list, facilitating the LL process, and generally managing the different perspectives that will arise from the roles and perspectives of each of the players.

Clear process guidance

A well-planned LL process will reduce the amount of time that is required of each of the participants, and also create a well-understood process that is psychologically safe for each of the players.

Generally, the LL process will include:

  • Identifying the LL process framework;
  • Identifying LL categories – time-based, process-based or output-based;
  • Seeking LL events for consideration;
  • Identifying for each offered event:
    • A title;
    • An explanation of the event;
    • Possible causes; and
    • Possible recommendations.
  • Gaining consensus from participants regarding the importance of the LL event, the causes, and the most appropriate recommendations;
  • Prioritising the outputs;
  • Preparing and publishing the LL report.


Psychological safety

The psychological safety of each participant is very important, as you want each person to “open up” and give their honest opinions without the fear that they may be ridiculed or castigated by other members.

Junior members need to feel that they are in a safe environment, and that their contribution won’t come back to haunt them at a later date. They also need to believe that their peers and bosses will respect their contribution during the workshop.

In this regard, the facilitator should seek an assurance from all the workshop participants that whatever is expressed at the workshop stays within those walls.

Participants need to be assured and should feel comfortable that final recommendations will be expressed in a manner that preserves the anonymity of each contributor.

Balancing positives and negatives

Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency for LL teams to identify and develop only negative LL events. This is because it seems to be easier for us to recall and analyse negative events rather than recognising the impact of positive items. Perhaps positive items are just taken for granted as the status quo? Perhaps also its because positive items tend to be related to processes with no emotion attached, rather than actual negative events that may have been emotive at the time?

It is extremely important to recognise key positive events or processes, as these will be invaluable to future readers. It is also a way to provide some balance in the recommendations, and to recognise and celebrate the successes.

If the positive attributes don’t appear to be generated during the early stages of the LL process, then the facilitation must include a specific reflective session to acknowledge key positive aspects of the project, and the extent that these should be published.

The final report should introduce the overall positive aspects first to illustrate that, in the holistic sense, the project or undertaking was quite successful, and why that is the case. (Except of course if the project was a total disaster, and everyone knows it!)

Avoiding recriminations

Unfortunately, a few participants may see their participation in the LL process as an ideal opportunity to criticise other individuals or “management” (commonly referred to as “they”), or to repeat their particular hobbyhorse, possibly to the exclusion of any other considerations.

So, participant selection is vitally important, and so is careful facilitation of the interactive process. However, the LL participant group should be selected as a broad spectrum of players, and some manageable level of antagonism may be a price worth paying to ensure that all relevant views and perceptions have been canvassed.

Optimising resource time

The most common approach is to invite players to participate in a workshop once the LL process and agenda have been developed. However, this approach can lead to a significant time impost for some of the players, especially key corporate executives.

Another approach is to initially seek suggested LL events, explanations and recommendations from players via a well-structured questionnaire, and subsequently to invite key players to a shorter duration workshop specifically to develop and agree key recommendations based on the questionnaire outputs. This approach also has the added advantage of minimising the opportunity for interactive personal recriminations.

The questionnaire approach can work extremely well in a busy environment, although it will require more preparation time from the organisers and the facilitator. Another approach involves interviewing time-poor senior executives in their offices, or by phone, and adding their contribution to the workshop, but again this requires more time from the facilitator.

Publishing and archiving

Apart from any cathartic effect that a LL process and report may have for its participants, really the key objective is to pass on relevant recommendations for future readers who are about to embark on a similar project or undertaking.

Therefore, it’s important that the report is concise and eminently readable, incorporating key recommendations in the body of the report formatted in a manner that future readers will retain. All supporting information should be relegated to a series of attachments.

The manner of archiving is also critical, and since most organisations now use some form of information management system (IMS), the LL report will need to be appropriately tagged and stored for easy retrieval.

Guaranteeing future readership

It’s not really sufficient to rely on passive retrieval techniques via the organisation’s IMS. All LL participants should informally monitor the organisation’s activities, act as advocates, and be prepared to offer relevant reference material and links to future players when the situation arises.