Project Learning: Important But Not Urgent

Ask a project manager what the most essential and important aspects of managing are, and somewhere in the list – along with risk management, managing stakeholder expectations and effective planning – will appear ‘project learning reviews’. They may not be called that, precisely. The names may include ‘project reviews’, ‘lessons-learned reviews’, ‘post implementation reviews’ or ‘project close-outs’, but underneath the various labels is a single, central principle: learning from our projects so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future that we have encountered in the past.

Unfortunately, while learning from projects is viewed as important, it also doesn’t seem to occur very often. According to our benchmarking research, less than 20% of organizations have a formal approach to evaluating projects upon completion that is actually used. While more organizations may say that they evaluate their projects, the reality is that very few do. Even in organizations that purport to have highly formalized capabilities, however, actual compliance is comparatively low.

In a recent engagement for a customer organization, we had the opportunity to review the results of all of the major projects that had been completed in the previous few years. Of the 65 projects identified, less than 20 had completed project close-out reports evaluating the successes and challenges of the projects. That’s less than one third of the largest projects completed by the organization with a completed review. Of those reviews that were produced, however, they provided phenomenal insight into the capabilities and challenges of managing projects within the organization. Reading the documents provided a very clear insight into both the challenges and the enablers that exist within the organization. Simply going over those reviews would provide the new project manager with a tremendous advantage in familiarizing themselves with how the organization functions. Those 20 project close-out documents provided me with as much value and understanding of the organization from one day of reading as I had gained in a period of five years of working with them.

In asking what was done with the project close-out reports, however, the project management office within the organization indicated, “The project managers send them to us, and we file them.” No sharing of the reports with others. No publishing them in an accessible place. No distributing them to other project managers facing similar projects. Most importantly, no formalized review of them to identify what can be done to improve organizational processes and capabilities.

So there you have it in a nutshell. An organization that is, on the face of it, relatively mature in its practices. They invest heavily in projects. They have an established a project management office to provide support to help ensure that projects are successful. They have a requirement for projects to be formally reviewed (and for these reviews to be documented) upon completion to identify learning opportunities. The reviews are forwarded the PMO for archiving. Tragically, despite superficially doing everything right, it isn’t working. The reviews aren’t done. Even where they are done, they aren’t documented. Those few that are documented and make it to the PMO aren’t shared. Ultimately, learning isn’t occurring.

The tragedy of this situation is that the organization would, as a result, probably be better off not doing reviews. Not because the process of reviewing a project and identifying lessons learned is bad or not useful – far from it. But the process of reviewing a project takes time and effort, and if the results are not going to be shared or used – or in some cases even documented – then this is time that is not well spent. Not spending it here leaves more time to be spent elsewhere. That said, the organization would be far, far better off if it took the requirement of actually documenting the reviews and built on it just a bit more.

Where value would exist for this organization – and so many others – is if the process of reviewing and learning from projects was managed just a little more holistically. Beyond the initial investment of doing reviews, a few simple actions would yield a far greater payoff. Enormous value could be added by creating a means of distributing the close-out documents, or making them available in a place where project managers can access them; this could be a web site, a project repository or even a shared drive on the network. Finally, there needs to be a separate process of compiling and reviewing the documents collectively to identify the trends, overall recommendations and improvements to methodologies and practices that would provide improvements to how projects are managed.

Given that insight, why aren’t more reviews being done? Why are they not being documented? Even though project managers recognize the review process as important, it clearly isn’t occurring. What is stopping the process from being embraced, valued and—above all—used?

For this organization, as for many, the answer is a simple but tragic one. While it is considered important, project learning isn’t considered urgent. Formally assessing projects at completion and documenting the findings takes time and effort. This time and effort, because it occurs at the end of the project, often conflicts with the many activities that are required at the end of the project to get to completion. Once done, fatigue and the pressure to move on to the next project conspire to prevent any formal review taking place. Even where reviews do take place, a lack of organizational commitment to use the results lead to the process being undervalued, and the learnings not being accessed or used. Bottom line, learning is recognized as being important, it just isn’t urgent enough to make it on to the radar. Until we’re willing to learn from our mistakes, that situation sadly isn’t likely to change. Unless a major crisis makes learning urgent. By then, however, it might just be too little, too late.

So… just how important is learning to you? And how urgent? It’s a worthy question to think about.

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