Closing the Project: 10 Ways of Embedding Lessons Learned in the Organizational DNA

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The value of the project lessons learned process is to transform information into actionable knowledge to improve the outcome of future efforts.   If we do not apply the lessons to future work, then little has been achieved.  Furthermore, embedding the lessons into the organizational DNA is necessary for our project organization to mature.

In October, I published “Closing a Project: Ask the Right Questions.” In that blog, I presented two techniques for effectively eliciting lessons learned during the project review.  In this blog, I will share 10-ways to embed lessons into the organizational DNA:

  1. Have a meeting where all recently completed projects are reviewed.  This ongoing meeting should be held on a regular schedule. A regular cadence sets the tone that this process is a part of the organization’s culture.
  1. Include all project delivery teams in the meeting. The expectation should be that all teams contribute to and are invested in the process.  The project management organization can facilitate the meeting as a shared service to the development organization.

Ideally, the meeting would include managers and leads from the business, requirements, project management, portfolio management, development, and testing organizations.  Initially, it may be best to start with the PM and development teams, or a similar pairing. It is easier to establish the pattern and rhythm with a smaller group, and expand as the process matures.

  1.   Create a simple one-page template for the project team to complete and use when presenting their lessons learned.  Keep the template focused. The goal of the template is to help the team distill and crystalize their thoughts. I have used the following template.

  1. When the team presents their slide, set the expectation that they are delivering their “elevator pitch.”  Remind them to be BLUF (bottom line up-front).  I challenge people to articulate their pitch in 25 words or less.

Clearly articulating the lesson and delivering them is the most important step.

Once, one of my project managers got so mired in the details of the project that his contribution was lost.  I helped him restate the lesson so the value was clear:  “We eliminated the overlap in testing between system and user testing.  We got the project quality office and stakeholders to agree. Consequently, we reduced the duration of a monthly maintenance release by one week (25%) and the cost by $12K (10%).”

  1. Time box each presentation. This keeps the meeting moving and forces the presenters to focus on honing their message.

I generally set the time limit for each presentation to 2 minutes. Time boxing helps the presenters develop better oral presentation skills. Also, we are frequently deploying 10-15 projects per month so we need to have a quick tempo both to review all of the projects and keep everyone engaged.

  1. Have the leaders in the organization attend the meetings.  The presence of the leadership has three benefits:
  • Reinforces the importance of the program.
  • Provides team members with exposure to their leadership.
  • Gives the leaders direct and clear visibility into their teams’ experience.
  1. At the end of the meeting have the facilitator summarize and articulate 3-5 key points or themes.  The attendees will be exposed to a lot of information and this recap helps distill information and lock the learning in memory.
  1. Over time, develop and maintain a list of the themes and lessons that need to be embedded into the organizational DNA.  These themes should be listed in the first page of the deck.  Reviewing the key themes reinforces the message.
  1. Build a repository of the lessons and encourage the teams to review the lessons as they begin new projects.   Also have managers periodically review the themes in their staff meetings.

Building a well used, vibrant repository is the hallmark of best practices. Achieving this level of maturity is a significant challenge. Many organizations focus on the tools and technology. The key is building a culture where teams actively use the repository; and where members routinely maintain the content.

  1. Develop a culture of storytelling where the team members share their experiences.   Humans learn through storytelling.

Ancient civilizations used stories to pass learning from one generation to the next.   In learning organizations, the stories are shared in break rooms or over a cup of coffee.  These interactions are critical to embedding the lessons into the organizational DNA.

Having experience with literally hundreds of projects I often provide guidance to my project managers through storytelling. For example, when involved in requirements gathering I share many examples of over-engineered processes that are disabled as soon as the application meets its first users.

Finally, set the expectation that building a learning culture is a long-term commitment.  While the processes and tools can be implemented quickly, building a vibrant and sustaining environment will take several years. Gains will be realized in the short-run; but embedding learning into the organizational DNA takes time, focus, and effort.  If managed as an organic movement, the cost is low and the payoff is high.

© 2015, Project Management Essentials, LLC

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