Eraser in actionA communication technique and best practice used by senior and experienced project managers is to put real energy into developing and creating “lessons learned” information throughout the life of the project — not just at the end.

Sharing lessons-learned information — mistakes, innovations and outcomes — from previous projects can have a positive impact on your current or next project. For example, somebody on the design team may come up with a cost- or time-saving technique on an earlier project that will prove valuable for the current project also, whether or not that same individual is still involved.

Yet few project managers collect lessons-learned information throughout the life of the work. They frequently tackle this in the final days of the project — or worse, after the project has completed. When that happens, the project manager must scramble for bits and pieces of project history to compile into a lessons-learned document. Often, because the project is in closeout, the project manager has only a few team members remaining, which makes compiling and obtaining project information from the remaining few resources difficult. The challenge is that the lessons-learned information is incomplete because the project manager doesn’t have the whole team — only those working on the closing phase.

Here are five ways you can improve your project lessons-learned practices.

1. Start Lessons-learned Collection from Kick Off

A best-practice technique starting to gain popularity is collecting lessons-learned information during the life of the project. starting from the kick-off meeting, capture and store the lessons-learned information in a central repository for everyone to review. As the project progresses, use the project’s status meetings to capture and review lessons gained since the previous meeting. This is the best time to collect it because you and your project team members can provide the week’s lessons-learned information while you’re reviewing it — everyone is present to discuss what is happening or did happen during the week.

While collecting the lessons-learned information, enter the data into a central location, such as a database, document, collaboration tool such as SharePoint or even a social enterprise program such as Yammer.

2. Add Lessons Learned to Your Agenda

When developing your weekly status meeting agenda, add a lessons-learned agenda item. As the meeting progresses to the point where you’re ready to collect lessons-learned information, ask each team member about his or her positive and negative experiences for the week. Don’t mention the words “lessons learned” to them; just capture what went right and wrong from every team member. Do your best to prevent this part of the meeting from devolving into a complaint session. The more open and non-judgmental you can be about what’s shared, the more the team members will warm up to providing you with the information. Eventually, team members will provide lessons learned without even realizing they’re doing so.

The goal of collecting this information on a weekly basis helps you lead the discussion around the lessons-learned information rather than waiting until the end of the project. Emphasizing information from past projects or past weeks on the current project will also help minimize the possibility of your team repeating the same mistakes. Each week, be on top of this process. At the end of the project, compile the information into a final presentation. That way you won’t be scrambling around trying to collect information from project team members who may be long gone.

3. Show Discretion in What Lessons You Communicate

When planning your project communications, it’s advantageous to use lessons-learned information wherever possible. For example, if you have a customer or client who, as a practice, wants project status reports delivered personally instead of emailing it, that’s invaluable information that you can tap sooner rather than later. (You don’t want them to have to repeat themselves as new people come into the latest project.) That’s the kind of information you should capture in your lessons-learned compilation.

However, occasionally, you might need to decide what information should be shared. Sometimes, sharing too much can cause unnecessary bias that could negatively impact the current project. An example would be capturing information about an individual or a particular group. That information may have been valuable for the previous project but it won’t necessarily offer any benefit for this particular project and therefore shouldn’t be broadly shared.

4. Collect Project Nitty-gritty

When managing a second iteration of a project, make sure you understand the previous major issues or concerns. When using and reviewing information from past projects, look for the following information to share with your team and customers to help benefit your new project:

  • Project budget information. Learn how earlier project managers managed their budgets and what tricks and techniques they used to be successful.
  • Project schedule information. Determine the duration of the new project to compare with the previous project schedules. This comparison is important because you can find out if your project can or should be using the same timeframes as the previous projects.
  • Project resources. Look for the various usage percentages of each team member, the process for finding team members, and whether those team members were allocated properly across the project lifecycle.
  • Risks and issues. Understand the previous project’s risks and issues to minimize the chances of those reoccurring on your project. Understand the method that previous project managers used to create, track, and reduce risks.

5. Communicate with Previous Project Managers

One technique that senior project managers often use when reviewing lessons learned is talking directly to the project managers of the previous projects. Those conversations often provide additional ideas that weren’t documented but are still valuable. Without these conversations, you would miss some rich detail worth knowing.

Your efforts to collect lessons-learned information will pay off. When companies take the time to produce lessons learned about a project the correct way, they build a knowledgebase that can benefit future work for years to come.

This Project Management Communication Tools book coverarticle is based on an excerpt from Project Management Communication Tools, written by Bill Dow and Bruce Taylor and available wherever fine project management books are sold.