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Project management learns new lessons

Project management learns new lessons

To be successful in the 21st century, organizations must replace their pre-1990s industrial revolution paradigm with a new one which will not only leverage their human expertise, but increase their organizational knowledge.

In their search for a more appropriate management pattern, some of our leading firms and researchers are experimenting with a concept introduced by Peter Senge called "the learning organization."1 According to Senge, the learning organization concerns itself with a shift of mind. It shifts its focus from seeing parts to seeing wholes. It changes from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality.

What are the lessons learned? Project management can implement this learning organization concept. Called "lessons learned," this concept can have a practical application in many companies.

As most project managers are aware, projects transfer little or no information that increases organizational knowledge. And any learning which does take place is usually incidental, or by accident. Yet it is quite clear that an important asset for any current or future organization is the amount of its organizational knowledge.

Organizational knowledge is difficult to define. We know it is more than data and information, but less than wisdom. It is not easily captured. It must be related to context--interpreted in terms of experiences and emotions, and filtered through the perspective of its beholder. Overall knowledge management is only the means, whereas performance is the objective. Somehow organizations must learn to get smarter, faster.

This brings us to the "lessons learned" concept. A lesson learned should increase organizational knowledge. Projects can be a good source of learning. The basic lessons-learned idea is simple, but its implementation will require effort and leadership to achieve the high levels of performance being demanded of organizations today.

What information do you share? Lessons learned should be implemented with every project. Projects should be required to report, periodically, on the lessons its participants learned that can provide helpful knowledge to current and future projects. These lessons should include failures as well as successes. A broad systemic perspective should be provided. Principles should be developed and applied. They may relate to technology (which is usually much easier to integrate) or to the supporting infrastructure. Although the lessons will usually be anecdotal in nature, they can be very useful.

The accomplishment of these suggestions will require a culture where everyone views lessons learned as part of their job. Just thinking in these terms can improve everyone's performance. Management can provide an important stimulus to this activity by asking about lessons learned at project and management review meetings.

1 The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organization.

Ask the Manager

Q Would you provide some illustrations of "lessons learned?"

A1. The introduction of change must be carefully planned and executed to be successful. Nothing much happened when our project team was asked to think about and prepare some lessons learned. However, after the pros and cons of the activity were openly discussed, we decided together that it would help both the organization and us as individuals. We found it to be very useful. We were especially encouraged when upper management began to discuss our lessons. 2. It is important to have all projects use the same project development process framework. For a while, each of our projects used whatever process they could invent. This soon resulted in chaos. Decisions were delayed. The projects were late. Customers were not happy. Most of these problems were corrected when we adopted and carefully implemented a Rapid Product Development Process. We believe that any of a number of processes would have been satisfactory as long as it was adapted to our situation. 3. The process that our firm adopted is excellent. However, we did not realize that it should be shrunk or expanded in terms of details depending on the size and nature of the project. To be successful, we made several adaptations. For example, we combined several documents into one. However, we were careful to use the common terminology and not skip any of the phases or gates. 4. We learned that our project received better support from production and other downstream activities when they were an integral part of the initial team. 5. We learned that better project decisions were made when all of the core team met frequently and candidly discussed problems and their solutions.

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