Project Lessons Learnt

25 January 2010

I attended a recent presentation run by the BCS Business Change Specialist Group. One of the questions asked was why so few lessons are learnt from previous projects when new projects are started. This was a puzzle to the questioner, as in his experience, post-implementation reviews themselves were very much the rule rather than the exception. During these reviews, he found that lessons learnt were duly noted but on starting any new project, these were never taken into account as part of the startup activities. The questioner wondered why this might be.

Various ideas were mentioned by both the speakers and other audience members.

One speaker felt that post-implementation reviews were not as valuable as they seemed. While ostensibly in part to ensure that the business benefits had been realised, he found that often the statistics taken from the project would be "tweaked" to exaggerate business benefits to justify a project's expenditure against the original business case. For these reasons, he felt that post-implementation reviews were devalued, held in low regard, and therefore project managers were not likely to take into account the findings of such reviews.

An audience member felt that project managers had a "doing it my way" attitude - a sense of personal pride in that they did not need to learn lessons from previous projects.

Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. Talking to colleagues, most seem to absorb project management best-practice in the following order:

• personal experience;

• adherence to standards;

• ad-hoc, anecdotal experience of others; and

• published technical literature.

Nowhere on this list are the formal review findings of previous projects' performance. What's missing is the opportunity to learn from past experience at a local level, for example in one particular corporate environment or a niche sector.

Two observations: the first is that one of the most powerful aspects of Agile development is the concept of retrospectives. These are short, frequent, regular meetings to discuss what has gone well since the last retrospective and what has gone badly - with a view to improving the delivery process itself. Since they are short and are a regular part of the method, they do not seem an un-necessary "bolt-on" to the process. Most agile methods mandate the use of these retrospectives. One way forward for may be to have the equivalent throughout a project, perhaps after each stage in the case of PRINCE2 projects.

The second observation is one of personal development. The realisation that the more experienced you are, the less you know - as your expanding circle of knowledge increases in area faster than your expanding sector of expertise.

An alternative way of expressing this is through the martial arts concept of Shu-Ha-Ri.

This concept describes three stages of learning of a martial art, namely Shu (approximating to -beginner), Ha (journeyman) and Ri (master).

Expressed this way, the Shu-Ra-Hi concept sounds very similar to the more Western-leaning theory of Four Competencies. However, there is a key difference, that being the cyclic nature of Shu-Ra-Hi. When you reach the Ri stage of any one discipline, you realise the limitations of what you have mastered and are ready to embark to the Shu stage of a related discipline or area of expertise. This self-reflective realisation is missing from the Four Competency theory (although some have tried to modify it to allow this) and perhaps explains why project managers are reluctant to learn formally from previous projects.


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