Why You Should Not Have a Lessons Learnt Meeting

lessons learnt meeting

In this article I explain why you should not have one lessons learnt meeting at the end of your project. At first I cover why it is difficult to get people to attend lessons learnt meetings. After that I cover what to do instead of having one lessons learnt meeting at the end of the project. I then show how by changing the questions you ask can lead to better results. I will finish the article by showing how to make sure lessons are not forgotten.

Lessons Learnt meetings are the most unpopular of all the project meetings. It is the meeting that nobody wants go to. The problem is for the organisation it is the most important project meeting. So the lessons can be learnt for future projects the meetings are important. It is often the structure of the lessosn learnt meeting that makes it so unpopular.

There are two major traps that people fall into with lessons learnt meetings. The first one is the focus. Often people focus on the bad things. What went wrong? Why was that so bad? While it is important to learn from these there is a better way to approach them. The second trap is to only have one lessons learnt meeting at the end of the project. The problem is at the end of the project nobody has an interest in the project anymore. Chances are they have already started the next project and this is the focus of their attention now.

Who wants to go to a negative meeting that focusses on something that is no longer important. People have commitments to their new project that needs to get done. They no longer have the time for this old project. This is why I always say you should not have a lessons learnt meeting especially at the end of the project. If you do then expect people to make excuses for not attending. Also expect those that do attend to be unhappy and disinterested.

So what should you do if you do not have a lessons learnt meeting?

The trick is to have more than one lessons learnt meeting. A great time to have them is at a natural break in the project. For a traditional waterfall project then there are natural stop points. Have a lessons learnt session at the end of each of these project phases:

1. Initiation
2. Requirements
3. Design
4. Build
5. Test
6. Go Live
7. Closure

There are many advantages to having lots of these meetings throughout the project. The first advantage is there is less chance of forgetting something. If you imagine running a project that takes over a year to complete. If you held a lesson learnt at the end you are not going to remember much about the start of the project. There will be more lessons captured when everything is fresh in the mind of the attendees.

The second advantage is the meetings will be a lot shorter. The shorter the meeting the greater the chance you will have of having engaged people. The third advantage is the most important. Is there something that has happened at the start of the project? If so this can be learnt and applied to the rest of the project. This is a great way for the project to learn from itself. This increases the chance that the project will be a success.

Do Not Call it Lessons Learnt

For the best results do not call the meeting lessons learnt or project review. These terms imply negative thoughts about the project. People will come to the meeting thinking about what went wrong. While it is important to learn from what went wrong it is also important to learn from what went well. Often the what went well gets forgotten about. Later projects are then unable to learn from these successes. If later projects can learn what has gone well on other projects it increases the chance that they will go well.

Take a positive approach and call it something like end of stage celebration. This is far more positive and so likely to lead to people being more positive. Start the meeting with the question “What has gone well?” Once you have made a note of everyones suggestion move on to the second question. “What could we do to make it even better?” This will tease out the what went wrong issues. Yet by doing it this way you are also likely to get suggestions on how to improve things. So rather than only having a problem you will also have a solution. This solution is far more valuable to later projects than the problem.

What to Do With the Captured Lessons

There is no point capturing the lessons in a log and then filing it away so nobody sees it. At the start of each new stage review the lessons captured at the previous stages. Is there anything you can do now on this project that has been already learnt?

But how do you share your lessons with other projects in the organisation? The answer to this is to have one master lessons log. When capturing new lessons on a project add it to it to this master list. As the project manager you should review all the lessons from other projects. This will increase the chance of your project being a success.

What to Include in Your Master Lesson Log

If you are responsible for creating a master lesson log for your organisation here is a guide that you can use.

Use a spreadsheet as your master lesson log and make each tab a different project stage. Have the following headings across the top of your spreadsheet:

1. Unique Id – This is a letter and a number that enables you to reference each lesson. I use the letter for the stage and then the next number in the sequence. For example in the requirements stage the id would be R1, R2, R3 etc.
2. Repeat or Improve – I use a drop down for this column to select either repeat or improve. If the lesson is something that has gone well then I select repeat. If it is something that has not gone well then I select improve.
3. Has This Happened Before – Review the lessons captured in the master log to see if this happened before. If it has state yes and the unique id of the already captured lesson.
4. Could it Happen Again – Is this lesson a one off or is it likely to happen again on either this or other projects.
5. Solution – Is there a recommended action to prevent the lesson from happen again. Or if it is a positive lesson what needs to happen to make it occur again.

The most important thing with capturing lessons is not to only note them and then hide them away. It is important that they become a learning aid with action as a result. Make sure you share your lessons with everyone inside and outside your project.

Summary

In summary, the key to having a better lessons learnt meeting is to have more of them throughout the project. Hold a lessons learnt meeting after each project stage. This will help people remember the important lessons. Leaving it until the end of the project will lead to people forgetting some of the lessons. You will also get much better engagement if you focus on what went well. Ask how things could be even better to also get solutions on improvements.

Having a master lessons log across all projects enables better sharing and learning. It also highlights if the same lessons keep happening over and over again. The following is a good template for a master lessons learnt log:

Unique Id
Repeat or Improve
Has This Happened Before
Could it Happen Again
Solution

This is how I run the lessons on my projects. Use this approach to have more positive and useful lessons learnt meetings. Remember do not only capture lessons also act on them.

If you would like more information on projects and meetings enter your email address. I will also send you some great templates that you can use on your project.