Do we really apply lessons learned to projects?

Peter Honey is a highly respected Chartered Psychologist, a dedicated lifelong learner who has written well over 20 books, numerous articles – all on learning.

He writes an informative and regular column in ‘Training Journal.’ In his latest article he asks whether lessons are ever really learned. He says: “I’m fascinated by the number of times you hear people …say things like “lessons have been/will be/must be learned.”

Peter suggests that so much informal learning goes on at the subliminal level and that people claim to learn something new each day but, if you ask them to describe what they have learned, you rarely get a convincing answer.

He asserts – and it is certainly my experience, – that if you can articulate learning:

• the learner becomes clear what he has learned
• the learning is shared, making it a trigger for others to learn
• the learning is more easily converted into action plans
• the learning is amenable to quality assurance

So what has this all to do with project management?

There are too many examples of ‘failed projects (however you define the word fail). How much learning follows from these failed projects? How much learning is shared with successful projects? My experience suggests very little.

Few companies can boast a robust project learning process. Lessons learned fail to be captured and shared, and defeat the whole learning process. My experience also shows that project closure meetings/processes rarely happen so how can learning be built into the overall project management process

Peter Honey suggests that is not easy to articulate real learning. I believe we need to go beyond ‘the Honey line’. He says: “when someone claims that lessons have been learned, we should ask what lessons have been learned and really probe further.” My suggestion; build into projects a much stronger process to capture and share learning

Honey says: “When they wriggle, we should insist on getting a thought through answer within 24 hours.”

We will continue to make the same mistakes if we do not, as Honey suggests realise what we have learned. Often, people need help in identifying learning. This is where a neutral facilitator (Training Manager) can possible help.

No learning and the same mistakes will be made…… over and over again?

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3 Responses to Do we really apply lessons learned to projects?

  1. Pingback: schlossBlog » #227 Lessons Learned

  2. Barry Shore says:

    Great post on what it takes to really learn from our mistakes. But I fear I am not optimistic if we let nature take its course.

    Let me make a comparison. Divorce rate in the US is about 40 percent. These are the total failures. Many more marriages are disappointments. Lots of books have been written about the lessons we have learned and how to apply them so we can save our marriages. Yet, there has been little impact. Divorce rates remain high.

    So, let me raise this question. Is there something inherent in the human behavior process where there is little that we can do to change behavior. Is the failure rate of marriages and projects actually not that bad? Is this as Good as it gets?

    My view is that coaching or counseling really does work for the willing organization or the willing couple.

    Barry Shore

  3. Ron says:

    Thanks for the comment Barry.

    Change takes time and effort. It is a lot easier to continue to do the same things we have always done. To quote: “If you always do what you always did you will always get what you always got.” I long ago realised that I (and many of our colleagues) are trying to change behaviour – something very difficult – but we have to try. If we fail to influence and change behaviour then sorry to say we will always get what we always got. You make a great point; coaching will definitely help.


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