What are lessons learned in project management?

Ana Miljkovic

Last updated on: January 18, 2023

Historia magistra vitae est — history is the teacher of life. 

This old Latin expression implies that our past experiences should serve as lessons for the future. We need to learn, improve ourselves, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The famous saying can be applied to any aspect of our lives and work. Therefore, it also applies to project management.

The so-called lessons learned are a valuable part of every project, and they should be carefully analyzed with the aim of improving projects and the way we work.

In this article, we’ll explain:

  • What lessons learned are,
  • The lessons learned process,
  • How to capture lessons learned,
  • How to organize a lessons learned meeting, 
  • How to write a lessons learned report, and
  • What happens after the report is made. 

We’ll support these explanations with examples and provide the reasons why lessons learned are important. 

We have a lot to cover, so, let’s dive in.

Project management lessons learned - cover

Lessons learned in project management — definition

According to PMBOK® Guide (Seventh edition), lessons learned are “the knowledge gained during a project, which shows how project events were addressed or should be addressed in the future, for the purpose of improving future performance.”

The main reason for capturing lessons learned is constant improvement of project protocols and principles. 

Only if you draw conclusions from your positive and negative past experiences will you be able to make progress. The goal is to repeat and build on the positives and avoid and learn from the negatives. 

Lessons learned should be captured throughout the life of the project. They are more than an informal process of learning from previous mistakes — they are documented, which means lessons learned can be retrieved and applied later. 

It’s also a great practice to document lessons learned in real time to prevent forgetting about them as the project progresses. Moreover, if some team members leave the project, their lessons learned will remain. 

Why lessons learned are underutilized

Every project manager should be well aware of the impact lessons learned can have on the current and future projects.

However, despite knowing the value of lessons learned, not everyone makes full use of them. Some of the reasons for this might be that:

  • They don’t know how to capture lessons learned,
  • They capture lessons learned at the end of a project but don’t make full use of them due to a lack of time or interest, 
  • Lessons learned are captured but poorly documented,
  • The process of collecting lessons learned is unorganized, and
  • They find it difficult to adopt new practices resulting from lessons learned.

To help you with the lessons learned process in the first place, we’ll describe it in more detail in the following lines.

Lessons learned process in 5 steps

The lessons learned process, as described in the article Learning from All Projects by Steyn and Van der Walt, includes 5 steps:

  • Identify,
  • Document,
  • Analyze, 
  • Store, and 
  • Retrieve.

We’ll explain each step in more detail.

5 steps for the lessons learned process
5 steps for the lessons learned process

Step #1: Identify

The first step is to identify lessons learned i.e. any comments and/or suggestions around the project that the team, project manager, or the company itself may utilize to elevate their performance. 

This is usually done through a project survey that is sent out to all team members. Various questions connected to a project help the participants share their lessons learned. Those who can’t attend the meeting can provide their input through a survey. 

The survey enables the participants to prepare for the discussion during a lessons learned meeting that follows. During the meeting, the participants discuss their insights gathered from the survey and define lessons learned more clearly. 

You’ll find more information on how to capture lessons learned later in the article.

Step #2: Document

You should collect the findings from the previous step and put them together in the form of a document that will be distributed to all team members. The members are then expected to respond and confirm the document’s accuracy. 

The document contains the data on lessons learned discussed in the meeting and inputs provided through a survey by those team members who didn’t take part in the meeting. 

After getting the green light for the accuracy, these findings are summarized in the final lessons learned report and a copy is sent to project stakeholders

We’ll provide more details on how to make a lessons learned report plus a report template later in the article. 

Step #3: Analyze 

Now that you have identified and documented lessons learned, it is time to conduct a thorough analysis of them and organize them so that they can be easily applied. 

A project manager is usually in charge of the analysis, but it is possible to gather a team of people to do this task. One of the techniques used is a root cause analysis which aims to detect the reasons behind mistakes that were made. 

Step #4: Store 

Once the lessons learned are analyzed and organized, you can store them in a repository and keep them for future reference. 

The lessons learned report should be accessible to the project team, so it is usually stored on a shared drive or another kind of repository where the project information is kept.

Step #5: Retrieve

It isn’t enough to store your lessons learned and lose track of them in a sea of other information. When you store lessons learned, try to do it in a practical way so that they are readily available and easily retrieved. 

One of the ways to do this is to make sure you store your lessons learned in a searchable database. This database should enable an easy search of lessons learned, usually through keywords. The majority of commercial drives, such as Google Drive, have a built-in keyword search functionality. 

This is what the lessons learned process looks like at a glance. However, there is much more to be said regarding the individual process steps. 

So, let’s take a closer look at the most important part of this process.

6 Ways to capture lessons learned

You should encourage capturing lessons learned from the very beginning, starting from the project kick-off meeting. Identifying lessons learned should be a continuous process throughout the project lifecycle. 

Nevertheless, gathering lessons learned is not that simple. Depending on the complexity of the project and the size of the team, there are a few ways to tackle the capturing process.

Method #1: Survey

Survey is a useful way of collecting lessons learned, especially for big teams and large projects. The survey questions can be divided into general categories such as project management, resources, communication, and other. 

These categories can be further subdivided to deal with more specific project issues. For example, the project management category can have subcategories concerned with different project phases. 

Method #2: Post-project meeting

A post-project meeting is dedicated to the evaluation of the project lifecycle and discussion about what was right and what was wrong. 

Even though this meeting is a great opportunity to review all the mistakes and triumphs throughout the project, it should not be the only time to do this because you may forget some important lessons by the end of a project. 

Method #3: One-on-one meeting

These meetings are mostly suitable for small teams who know each other well, and the project manager has the time to talk to each member individually. 

Team members might feel more relaxed about providing feedback this way since they have more time to elaborate on their insights.  

Method #4: Team meeting

A project manager can encourage the sharing of lessons learned in every team meeting. 

Both daily and weekly meetings are a great opportunity to discuss them, especially if there are real-time lessons learned. 

Team meetings can be held at any point throughout the project, as deemed necessary. 

Method #5: Wikis

A project wiki can be created as a means of capturing lessons learned. The wiki allows team members to add updates on a regular basis.  

Method #6: Software

A centralized software providing space for collecting feedback and keeping track of the previous lessons learned is a great way to have everything in one place. 

You can easily create a board in your project workflow where you and your team members can collect and validate lessons learned. 

Also, you may assign columns, different labels and dates, and organize lessons learned to suit your needs.

The image below displays a lessons learned log in project management software Plaky for the XY project. The columns relevant to this project are:

  • Lesson learned,
  • Subject,
  • Person,
  • Experience type,
  • Situation,
  • Comments and recommendations, and 
  • Date.

Both team members and their project manager include their lessons learned, and in the subject column, they mark the area it belongs to — such as task management or communication. They can also decide on the experience type — positive, negative or neutral. 

In addition, the situation column is dedicated to a detailed description of the issue. It is supported by the comments and recommendations column where anyone can suggest how to deal with a similar situation in the future. 

Lessons learned log in Plaky
Lessons learned log in Plaky

Project managers should encourage their team(s) to share lessons learned in any meeting. They don’t have to wait for dedicated meetings to do this. 

Let’s now see how a lessons learned meeting is organized.

How to organize a lessons learned meeting

Lessons learned meetings can be held whenever the team needs them, but some key points usually include:

  • At the start of the project,
  • After each project phase,
  • After achieving a milestone,
  • After the completion of the project, and 
  • In real time i.e. when the lesson is learned.

After collecting feedback on lessons learned, the project manager is obliged to arrange a lessons learned meeting and invite all the parties involved. 

Meetings can be held for internal and external stakeholders, but also for management and project team members

It is good practice to choose a facilitator to run a meeting, preferably someone not directly working on a project. This person should prepare a meeting agenda that will help keep the session on track. 

The facilitator should identify the meeting participants, make a summary of the gathered data for the participants, and prepare specific questions. 

There are 3 main questions to be discussed in this meeting:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong? and
  • What are some suggestions for improvement?

The meeting is structured as follows:

  • Introduction — welcoming the attendees, establishing meeting rules, and sharing the agenda,
  • Collecting feedback — discussion time where everyone is encouraged to provide input, 
  • Evaluation — time for recommendations, finding solutions for lessons learned, and suggesting how to apply them in future projects,
  • Conclusion — the part of the meeting where the facilitator thanks everyone and assigns follow-up tasks, and
  • Report — preparing a lessons learned report based on the meeting outcome. 

Now that we have covered the meeting procedure, we’ll suggest some rules to stick to when it comes to lessons learned meetings.

Rules for running an effective lessons learned meeting

We know that conducting a lessons learned meeting is far from easy. The facilitator might sweat buckets by the end of the meeting, as there are always shy or reserved participants but also those that are long-winded speakers. 

However, some rules might help you conduct a lessons learned meeting:

  • Stick to the agenda — don’t allow getting off topic.
  • Avoid naming names and start with a premise that every success or failure is a learning experience. 
  • Encourage everyone to provide feedback, but one person at a time.
  • Show respect to every speaker, avoid long talks, and try to be concise. 
  • Make space for both positive and negative feedback.

The suggested rules shouldn’t be hard to follow since the entire project team has the same goal and that is improvement of the project practices.

After the meeting is done, the facilitator should prepare a report based on the conclusions reached during the session. 

Here’s how to create a lessons learned report.

How to prepare a lessons learned report (+ template)

The purpose of the report is to collect all lessons learned and any additional input gathered in the meeting and prepare a summary that you will present to the management. 

It is very important to document lessons learned right after the meeting because you need to share this document with all the meeting participants and those who weren’t able to attend. That way, they can check if they agree with everything said or if they have anything to add. 

When you get the feedback and consolidate all the lessons learned and recommendations, it is time to make a final report. 

Depending on the audience, you might need to adjust your reports. Your team members are probably more interested in lessons regarding daily procedures, communication, and deadlines. 

On the other hand, your stakeholders probably expect more details on the bigger picture supported by graphic presentations. 

The final lessons learned report can come in one of the following forms:

  • Summary — a one-page summary including the findings and recommendations for improvement,
  • Executive report — a more detailed report consisting of the lessons learned, answers to the 3 meeting questions, and suggestions for dealing with issues,
  • Findings — an outline of issues uncovered during the evaluation, and
  • Recommendations — suggested actions to be taken with the aim of finding ways to work on the findings and im.  

The lessons learned report can be shared in the form of a newsletter, presentation, or any other way depending on the audience. 

You can also use our lessons learned report template which covers all major project aspects.

Lessons learned report

You can get the template here 

Once you create the report, you’re still only halfway towards completing the lessons learned process. 

What happens after the lessons learned report is sent out?

After the report is sent out, there are still 3 remaining steps in the lessons learned process:

  • Analyze, 
  • Store, and 
  • Retrieve. 

So, when you finalize the report and share it, what follows is a careful analysis of the findings. You need to organize your lessons learned and improvement suggestions in order to apply them. 

The person in charge of the analysis should have the authority to approve the implementation of the recommendations. 

The results of the analysis can be used for training sessions with project managers or team members.  

How you store lessons learned is the next important step. In order to simplify retrieval, you need to organize the repository. It is recommendable to divide lessons learned into categories and sort them based on keywords. 

Lessons learned, project documents, and reports are usually stored on a shared drive.

If the storage is neatly organized, the final step is simple. Lessons learned can easily be retrieved from the organization’s repository by keyword search and used for current or future projects. 

Examples of lessons learned

Project team members are not the only ones who learn from their mistakes and accomplishments. Lessons learned can be collected at different levels within a company.  

Examples of lessons learned for team members

Every team member should reassess their work performance, but it is often difficult to be objective. Some of the usual lessons learned for teams are:

Lesson learned #1: Ask for help

Situation: A project team member worked alone on an issue for two days before reaching out to a senior coworker who was able to solve the problem immediately. 

Lesson learned: Ask questions and resolve any work-related issues together with your team members and superiors.

Lesson learned #2: Improve your time management skills

Situation: A team member tried time tracking software for the first time and realized he was more productive then before.

Lesson learned: Organize your time in a better way (using a time tracker), prioritize tasks, and don’t miss deadlines.

Lesson learned #3: Seek expert advice

Situation: A team of developers is working on a piece of software for a hospital, and it takes them a lot of time to decide on the correct terminology for some features. After a while, they ask their team leader to invite an expert to help them define the key medical features.

Lesson learned: When you’re struggling with something that’s outside your team’s immediate expertise, don’t hesitate to seek outside expert help. Ask your team leader to invite a specialist from the hospital you are making software for to define the key features related to medical terminology.

Examples of lessons learned for project managers

Project managers have a dynamic job, and therefore, they can sometimes neglect certain issues. Examples of their lessons learned are:

Lesson learned #1: Encourage communication 

Situation: Two team members are working on the same task because they didn’t know who the task was assigned to.

Lesson learned: Establish channels of communication to keep everyone on the same page. For example, a project management software such as Plaky can help you organize your team and assign tasks. 

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

If you are interested in finding out more about the importance of communication in project management, check out the following blog post:

Lessons learned #2: Avoid tight deadlines 

Situation: A few team members have been working overtime for three days in order to meet a deadline

Lessons learned: Allow your team enough time to do their tasks and prevent burnout. Try to provide some buffer time for each task because you don’t want a stressful atmosphere in your team.  

Lessons learned #3: Give praise

Situation: A team reaches a milestone in the project you are working on. You take the time to praise your team, which motivates them to continue working on a project with enthusiasm. 

Lessons learned: Let your team know how much you appreciate them and give praise for every effort and success because this gives them a boost of motivation and productivity.  

Examples of lessons learned for the company

Some lessons learned during the course of a project can benefit the entire company. Here are some examples: 

Lessons learned #1: Promote transparency

Situation: New employees are not sure about the benefits of a private health insurance your company offers and don’t know whom to ask.

Lessons learned: Provide a Q&A page for your employees where they can ask questions and get or find answers. Foster an atmosphere where all employees feel free to ask and speak up if they have any concerns.

Lessons learned #2: Support education and workshops

Situation: A few of your project managers would like to acquire Business Value-Oriented Principles (BVOP) certification. They would be really happy to know that their company will provide a budget for this. 

Lessons learned: Listening to the wishes of your employees is very important, especially if they are connected to the upgrade of their education and therefore their own better performance. Acquiring new skills and organizing workshops on different topics is something employees will enjoy. 

Lessons learned #3: Align departments and teams

Situation: A design department is not able to provide 3D product images for the client’s website on time because the request was added later in the process and the date of delivery stayed the same. This is a huge problem for the company because teams were not aligned and now they have to find a quick solution. 

Lessons learned: Try to prevent chaos among departments and help them achieve a smooth cross-functional collaboration. Departments that have to collaborate need to have open and two-way communication and solve issues together. 

As you can see, we can learn from experience at all levels. Any improvement is a step forward, and it will certainly pay off. Let’s touch on some other reasons why lessons learned are important.

Importance of lessons learned 

It can often be challenging to put lessons learned into practice due to the lack of time or poor organization of the lessons learned storage. 

However, there are good reasons to capture the positives and negatives in your project work. Here’s why you should capture lessons learned:

  • Lessons learned allow you to learn from your missteps and prevent repeating them in the future.
  • Lesson learned meetings show your team that their feedback is valuable.
  • Capturing lessons learned at all company levels fosters trust and respect.
  • The entire company can benefit from the lessons learned because lessons learned in one project can save both time and money in another similar project.  
  • Lessons learned help you implement best practices and make your projects more efficient.
  • Real-time lessons learned can be implemented within the same project.

Conclusion: Lessons learned allow you to learn from both your successes and failures

Ongoing improvement should become a part of the corporate culture of every company. This improvement is only possible if you hear your employees and welcome their feedback.

Lessons learned are a powerful method to pass on information and gain knowledge that you can reapply in future.

By creating a learning environment which will greet constructive criticism without pointing the finger of blame at anyone and praise good practices and solutions, we can expect teams to grow and companies to recognize the importance of lessons learned as collective responsibility. 

✉️ Do you find time for lessons learned meetings? How do you capture lessons learned in your team and/or company? What is your solution for storing lessons learned? We would like to hear from you. Feel free to share your experience and email us at blogfeedback@plaky.com. We might use it as an example in this or some other article. If you know anyone interested in lessons learned in project management, please share this article with them.

Author: AnaMiljkovic

Ana Miljkovic is a project management author and researcher at Plaky who enjoys writing articles on diverse project management topics. This way, she manages to link her love of in-depth research, efficient organization, and fine writing. As a former English teacher, she strongly believes reading is one of the best ways to learn. Therefore, the aim of her articles is to simplify complex topics and make them helpful and easy to understand for everyone.

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