Lessons Learned – How to improve project performance

improve performance

Often in workplaces, learning is left up to the individual. Typically, we’re all expected to bed down our successes and avoid repeating our past mistakes. However project successes, failures and improvements are often the result of the actions of multiple individuals, and the interactions between them.  

If your organisation is going to learn from projects, it must therefore take a proactive and collective approach to gathering – and acting – on ‘lessons learned’. There is a range of collective approaches from software to suggestion boxes, but we find getting the team together and discussing the project is the most effective way.

This approach encourages positive team relationships and fosters a culture of trust and improvement,whilst also learning the technical lessons. However, it also presents a number of challenges. 

In this article we consider the organisational factors that prevent future success and consider the four cardinal sins of the ‘Lessons Learned’ workshop to help you improve future project performance.


The organisational challenges that prevent success

Trying to actively learn from project experiences can often fail at the first hurdle – culture. If it’s not part of your organisational culture to improve, you will have a hard time convincing your colleagues and management to invest the time and effort to a collective ‘Lessons Learned’ approach.  

If you get agreement, the next step at which ‘Lessons Learned’ processes stumble is commitment. If you capture but then don’t apply the ‘Lessons Learned’, people see it as an exercise in futility, or, that what they’ve produced is undervalued.

The third challenge is complacency – after a number of iterations things are going so well that it seems redundant to keep doing them.

Are any of these issues in your company? If so, thankfully over time and with the right approach, these can be addressed, whilst also improving your business and culture at the same time. Running successful, actionable ‘lessons learned’ workshops is an initial step in this journey.


The four cardinal sins of the ‘Lessons Learned’ workshop


#1 Don’t let it become another ineffectual meeting

Make sure this is the best meeting you have ever run! That way people will feel positive about the time they invest. Spend time planning your purpose and objectives and create an agenda that makes the best use of everyone’s time. Make sure you have someone responsible for facilitating or chairing the meeting. 

Without a strong process and facilitation it’s likely to turn into another talk-fest. If you think this will happen, it’s probably better to do nothing at all and wait until you’re confident in the process, rather than running another ineffective meeting that makes it harder again, to gain time commitments in the future.  


#2 Avoid the blame game, finger pointing and being too subjective

Often people’s reputations are on the line when we start looking at success and failure on projects. If you have challenging egos or relationships on the project, managing group dynamics can be especially challenging.   

Setting some ground rules and good preparation can help, but it’s also worthwhile having a think beforehand about how you might handle particular people or behaviours in the room. You may also consider having someone external to the project chair the meeting, so they can be a neutral party and more objective. 


#3 Make sure you have a process to ensure action

The most important question in planning any workshop is “what do you plan to do afterwards?”  This helps design workshop outcomes and a follow-up process that maps workshop goals with business goals. 

Running a ‘Lessons Learned’ workshop has intrinsic value on its own – through the reflective discussion that ensues. Understandably though, the most value comes from actually using the lessons to improve in the future. 

If your project management process doesn’t allow resources to do this, how is it going to happen? If you are responsible for organising a ‘Lessons Learned’ workshop, ask yourself upfront “what do we want to do with the learnings, and how will we ensure action?”  

Make sure you discuss with your organising team the approach you will use to carry through actions, and if there are any organisational mechanisms you can tap into. This may involve tabling the actions in a regular project control group, giving individuals accountability and integrating it into KPIs and role descriptions. 


#4 If you want culture change – don’t make them optional

If you are going to start integrating ‘Lessons Learned’ workshops regularly, you should establish very clear expectations in your organisation or project around these workshops, and your commitment to them. 

Particularly about why they are important, but also when to do them, and ensure you match the process to the scale and phase of the project. Some of the considerations include what type and detail of process you will use at the start of, during and at the end of projects.     

Did we say start? Yes, even running a brief meeting at the start of a project to ask, “What did we learn from our previous projects and experiences?” can be invaluable.

By being clear on when you run them, you avoid an ad-hoc or optional approach.  The reason being, it’s hard for busy people to commit to something that’s considered as ‘optional’ when they have plenty of other deadlines to meet.  If you or your organisation wants to be a market leader, this must change. 

By avoiding these pitfalls you should start to foster a culture of continual improvement; inspire commitment to act on previous lessons; and overcome any complacency in your team/organisation. Ultimately, this will generate competitive advantage and ensure your organisation’s future success.


Do you agree with our top four cardinal sins?

We’d love your insights. Share your thoughts on our LinkedIn page or join us for a free webinar to discuss this matter in more detail by getting in contact.

Nick Bruse
Head of Thinc Beyond
03 9654 6799