The Challenge of Project Learning: Are We Doomed to a Life of Insanity?

A common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time hoping for a different outcome. Like Sisyphus, so many of us roll the boulders that are our projects up a hillside of organizational resistance and challenge, each time hoping that we’ll reach the summit. When once again our burden plummets down the hillside, we experience the inevitable feelings of frustration, followed by the irrepressible commitment to next time approach things differently. Frustratingly, ‘next time’ never seems to come. Judging by the track records of the majority of project managers, the preceding sentences are not confusingly alien but achingly familiar. This begs the question: If we do keep approaching the same projects the same way, and we do want a different outcome, how do we stop the insanity?

The greatest challenge that any organization faces is learning from its experiences. On a daily basis, staff members within organizations are confronted with a broad array of experiences and challenges. As new challenges emerge, new solutions are sought. The magnitude of change and the rapid pace of progress in most project environments, however, often short circuits the learning opportunities that make better solutions possible. As a result, we most typically try to do the best we can with what we have. While we may secretly chafe at our ability to improve how we respond, and we are discouraged by the lack of time necessary to truly work through and develop better responses, our world becomes one of reaction and response as new challenges and issues arise.

While this often feels like a personal challenge and many view it as a personal failing – or at least frustration – the reality is that this phenomenon is widespread, enormously typical and essentially systemic. It is not our personal ability to learn that is our greatest barrier to choosing a different response. It is instead the expectations and demands of our organizations, compounded by a failure within our organizations to support effective processes for learning.

This article is the first in a new series that explores the learning challenges faced in organizations, particularly within a project environment. It delves into the underlying problems leading to our learning failures, why the underlying problems are there and what needs to change if improvements are to be made. Most importantly, we will explore what we can do about it – and how as organizations, as teams and as individuals we can adopt a culture where learning is possible. We will look at what solutions are necessary to create a learning culture that actually learns, and how we can take the first steps to doing so – whether or not the rest of our organizations are on board.

To solve a problem, we first must understand it. In exploring the challenges that underlie the learning problem, we first need to know why, as organizations, we most commonly fail to learn from our projects. No one wants to experience project failures, and sleepless nights of working to respond to issues and deal with risks is a highly overrated aspect of the project management role. So why does it keep happening? Overall, there are five key reasons:

  • The steps leading to learning don’t occur. Every project manager worth their salt knows the importance of conducting project reviews. Whether we call them lessons learned workshops, project close-out reports or post implementation reviews, the purpose is the same – to learn. Yet most organizations, and most projects, don’t do them. If we don’t do something we know we should, we have to ask ourselves why. And the why for most organizations is that while the effort of closing out projects is seen as important, it isn’t seen as urgent.
  • Learning isn’t fully worked through. Just as bad as not taking the time to learn, we don’t necessarily work through the learning process fully. The essential process of conducting a lessons learned exercise is an oft-repeated mantra of: “What worked? What didn’t work? What should we do differently?” Yet the process often falls down right around the second question. And even if we make it all the way to exploring what different might look like, we don’t follow it through to how to make different happen.
  • Learning results are not shared. While most projects don’t do a lessons learned review, and most learning reviews don’t work through to their final conclusion of how to do things differently, almost all lessons learned reviews that get that far suffer from the same failing – we don’t share what we found out. The lessons learned reports – even the good ones – become just one more deliverable to check off, sign off and file.
  • Opportunities for learning get perverted along the way. Those very few organizations that have tried to respond to the first three challenges often decide that what is required is a mechanism that makes sure learning happens. The resulting efforts, however, suffer from a dangerous habit of becoming the next corporate undertaking to formalize what should happen as second nature. ‘Corporate’ all too often becomes a synonym for ‘bureaucratic’, which in turn becomes code for ‘avoided and not used’.
  • Learning is viewed as a formal, one time activity. The largest indictment of project learning is its tendency to be viewed as a formal activity that occurs once a project completes. Those two nails pretty much seal the coffin shut. Rather than being an essential activity that is on-going, interactive and formal, it becomes – even as an isolated activity – bureaucratized and stultified. We don’t want to do it, and therefore we don’t do it.

The result of these challenges, sadly, is that the environment of insanity described earlier in this article becomes the enduring status quo. If we want a different outcome, we need to start doing things differently. Doing things differently, however, requires an understanding of why the current patterns of behaviour continue to be reinforced and sustained. The next few articles in this series will explore the above challenges in more detail, and offer strategies to address and respond to them. We’ll attempt a therapeutic approach that puts our organizations on the couch and asks them why they do the things they do, and what payoffs they think they’re getting by doing them that way. Then we’ll work on what we can do about adopting a more sane approach to learning from our projects. So pull up a couch… how does that make you feel?


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