Why lessons learned don’t get implemented

Money down the drainMany organisations talk about implementing best practices, learning lessons from past projects and developing a corporate knowledge base of all their project and programme experiences. For those looking to measure and grow their project management capabilities through Capability Maturity Models, such things are a ‘must have’ to demonstrate progress.

But even in those organisations that take the knowledge gathering most seriously there is a huge struggle to get those practices and lessons adopted in current and future projects. It really is like throwing money down the drain. This blog post examines some of the reasons why this happens and recommends some approaches to overcome the problems.

Projects and programmes are intrinsically risky and difficult to complete. They involve change and uncertainty. Even when you are undertaking a project that is similar to one you have undertaken before you will face new challenges, or at the very least, nuances on challenges you have faced before. But if you look at why most projects get in to trouble, it’s not because of unexpected new challenges, it’s because of failure to effectively deal with challenges we have faced numerous times before. Those very challenges that ‘best practices’, lessons learned logs and corporate knowledge bases  are designed, gathered and disseminated to deal with. Why is this?


You can lead a horse to water…..

There is an old adage that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. In our scenario that means you can give a project manager all the templates in the world, all the logs and databases you can find, but you can’t make him or her implement them or use them.

Why would the project manager refuse to use these pearls of wisdom? Several reasons really:

  • Well, firstly there is the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Many project managers are supremely confident in their own ability so how could anyone else possibly come up with a better way of doing anything project management related than them.
  • Secondly, there’s the view that their project is unique. Here, I am momentarily on the project manager’s side, because each project is truly unique – different people, different location etc. etc. But beneath the skins there’s a lot more commonality that uniqueness. So that excuse is out of the window too.
  • The third reason is more realistic and more common – they are too inexperienced (or inept) to know how to apply the lessons or best practices. Some then try to hide that and bluff it out (the inept) and others have nobody to turn to for help.
  • The most common reason is that project managers don’t know or realise the value in following the blueprint fashioned by that collective corporate  experience. Project managers get engrossed in the problems and challenges their project faces and lose sight of what they need to do in terms of structure and governance to enable them to resolve them as effectively and efficiently as possible. So they set off, with the best of intentions, and evolve the way they run their project as the go along.


Where do good project managers turn?

The sensible and lucky, get help. Where do they get that help from? Their boss, their colleagues, their team (yes, project teams often know a lot more about project management than you might think. After all, they will have been managed by a wide variety of project managers with a mix of skills and experience), a mentor or a team specially set up to give them that help.

The really good ones know they need to start with the end in mind. They know they need to set themselves up for success from the outside. They know it’s a tough job so they go looking for all the help they can get, from every trusted source the can find.


What do great organisations do?

Organisations that excel at project delivery create that corporate blueprint based on their experiences and best practices and then build a support team and structure to harness the blue print for all project managers to:

  • Minimise the damage caused by the inept;
  • Provide full guidance to the inexperienced;
  • Support the development of the sensible and lucky; and
  • Give the freedom to the experienced to demonstrate excellence in execution


How can your organisation become that good? It starts with recognising the importance and value of project management as a discipline. You probably already collect good practice and lessons learned, but you have to learn to share and disseminate it and that takes a conscious decision to communicate across the organisation. Not just that the knowledge exists, but that it is a valuable resource that should be used. That people are encouraged to use it and will be rewarded for using it.

You must also put in place the support structures to harness it and give them your total support. These include mentoring programmes, creating a project management cadre, and establishing Project and Programme Offices and Quality Assurance functions, all staffed by leading exponents of excellent project delivery. People that can clear the road through governance and controls that safeguard and protect all project stakeholders, enabling the project managers, with the occasional timely intervention to keep them on course, to get on and deliver.

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One comment on “Why lessons learned don’t get implemented
  1. pmllblog says:

    Allen you make some good points. I am doing some research in PM lessons learned, you may find my pmlessonslearned blog and papers of interest. http://www.invictaprojects.com.au/pmlessonslearnedblog/ & http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0263786314001227?np=y If anyone is interested in my papers please get back to me

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