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4 cardinal sins of the ‘lessons learnt’ workshop

Nick Bruse
February 7, 2013

Often in workplaces, learning is left up to the individual. Typically, we’re all expected to bed down our successes and avoid repeating our past mistakes. However, project successes, failures and improvements are often the result of the actions of multiple individuals, and the interactions between them.

If your organisation is going to learn from projects, it must therefore take a proactive and collective approach to gathering feedback. There is a range of collective approaches, but we find that getting the team together to discuss the project has the biggest benefits.

This approach encourages positive team relationships and fosters a culture of trust and improvement, but it is also fraught with challenges. Here we consider the cardinal sins of the ‘lessons learnt’ workshop to help ensure your organisation effectively learn from its previous projects.

1. Don’t let it become another ineffectual meeting

Make sure this is the best meeting you have ever run. That way people will feel positive about the time they invest. Spend time planning your purpose and objectives and create an agenda that makes the best use of everyone’s time. Make sure you have someone responsible for facilitating or chairing the meeting.

Without a strong process and facilitation it’s likely to turn into another talk-fest. If you think this will happen, it’s probably better to do nothing at all and wait until you’re confident in the process, rather than running another ineffective meeting that makes it harder again, to gain time commitments in the future.

2. Avoid the blame game, finger-pointing and being too subjective
Often people’s reputations are on the line when you start looking at success and failure on projects.  If you have challenging egos or relationships on the project, managing group dynamics can be especially challenging.

Setting some ground rules and good preparation can help, but it’s also worthwhile having a think beforehand about how you might handle particular people or behaviours in the room. You should consider having someone external to the project chair the meeting, so they can be a neutral party and more objective.

3. Make sure you have a process to ensure action
The most important question in planning any workshop is ‘what do you plan to do afterwards?’ This helps design workshop outcomes and a follow-up process that maps workshop goals with business goals.  Running a ‘lessons learnt’ workshop has intrinsic value on its own through the reflective discussion that ensues. Understandably though, the most value comes from actually using the lessons to improve in the future.

If your project management process doesn’t allow resources to do this, how is it going to happen? If you are responsible for a ‘lessons learnt’ workshop, ask yourself upfront ‘What do we want to do with the lessons and how will we ensure action?’

Make sure you design how you will carry through these actions. This may involve tabling the actions in a regular project control group, giving individuals accountability and integrating them into KPIs and role descriptions.

4. If you want to create a learning culture – don’t make them optional
If you are going to start integrating ‘lessons learnt’ workshops regularly, you should establish very clear expectations in your organisation or project around these workshops, and your commitment to them. Particularly about why they are important, but also when to do them, ensuring you match the process to the scale and phase of the project.

Some of the considerations include what type and detail of process you will use at the start of, during and at the end of projects. Did we say start? Yes, even running a brief meeting at the start of a project to ask, “what did we learn from our previous projects and experiences?” can be invaluable.

By being clear on when you run workshops, you avoid an ad hoc or optional approach. The reason being, it’s hard for busy people to commit to something that’s considered as ‘optional’ when they have plenty of other deadlines to meet. If you or your organisation wants to lead, this must change.

By avoiding these pitfalls and adopting a collective, feedback approach you will start to foster a culture of continual improvement, inspire commitment to act on previous lessons, and overcome any complacency in your team/organisation. Ultimately, this will generate competitive advantage and ensure your organisation’s future success.

Nick Bruse
Nick Bruse is the head of Thinc Beyond, a division of Thinc, which sees strategy creation and execution as two sides to the same coin. Thinc is a leading independent management consultancy specialising in projects operating across the health, infrastructure, private, social infrastructure and resources sectors. As head of Thinc Beyond, Nick is a specialist in business model innovation and venture development.
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2 thoughts on “4 cardinal sins of the ‘lessons learnt’ workshop

  1. After over 20 years of experience Industrial Research, Marketing and Organisational Change projects the use of the term “Lessons Learnt” for a post-project review remains a frustratingly bad application of English. How can the projects participants be self-critical, challenging and supportive of eachother and of the team as a whole if the objective of the workshop is to demonstrate – in a single sitting – an homest recognition of what didn’t go so well, why it happened, what should have been done and the positive consequences of doing what should have been done! A more realistic expectation for a post-project review would be “Lessons To Be Learnt”. Without time and opportunity for participants to apply and test the lessons in new project situations, how can any participant say they have learnt the lessons?

    Better to disconnect the “Lessons to be Learnt” session from the post project review, to give time for thought, some perspective on the consequences of what didn’t go so well and possibly a change of scene and participants. I applaud your suggestion of having a” Lessons to be learnt” [my revision] meeting at the commencement of a project where participants bring their lessons from other projects and a commitment to try out the lessons and review their – hopefully positive – outcome during the project. Only then can they be described as “Lessons Learnt”.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Jonathan – much appreciated.

      Whilst I have my own views on what Jonathan has said, I am interested in what others also might have to contribute on the topic.

      Do you agree with his points or how could the approach to the learning and application of learnings process on projects?

      Jonathan, would you like me to comment specifically on your feedback? If so, may i suggest we provide an opportunity for the readers to share their own views first.


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