5 Steps to a Productive Lessons Learned Session

5 Steps to a Productive Lessons Learned Session

Brad Egeland
Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad’s site at http://www.bradegeland.com/.

It’s never fun, no matter how helpful or constructive the discussion may be, to hear things that others think you may have been doing wrong. We all want praise and admiration, whenever possible. But, with project lessons learned sessions we must take the good with the bad – especially if we really want to take something productive away from it. And we must be ready to confidently give the same information and constructive criticism back to our team, stakeholders and customer.

Too many times we skip this very important step in the project engagement. And in some cases, it may be some of the last communication we will have with these same people in a while. If we are to properly learn from all that went on – good and bad – during the past few months of hard work together, then we need to ensure that it not only happens, but that the path to getting it down is as easy and straightforward as possible.

The first step in conducting a productive and meaningful lessons learned session is accepting the fact that it is useful. From there, follow these five easy steps that will actually last throughout the project engagement…

Make the project schedule the go-to document. Since the first step in conducting a productive and meaningful lessons learned session at the end of the project is to first accept that it is useful, you must also then plan for it. And by plan for it I mean put it in the project schedule. Put a placeholder in the project schedule sometime after deployment – likely approximately two weeks following rollout – and enter the prep and meeting tasks necessary to conduct the lessons learned session or sessions. Include the resources and the necessary effort/time so that you ensure your resources are booked for it on the project and so that you’ll be able to regroup them for this effort when the time comes. This may take some negotiation with department managers and your senior management because they may not see this effort and expenditure as a necessary part of the project. You may have to sell them on it.

Try to keep it going throughout the engagement. Ideally, the lessons learned effort would not just be an end-of-the-project task. Keeping an on-going list of lessons learned during the project will help you, your team, and the customer to be even better prepared for a more meaningful and productive lessons learned session at the end of the engagement. Think of it in terms of filing out your weekly timesheet. If you worked 50 hours during the week but wait until Friday (or worse, the following Monday) to complete you timesheet, you’re going to have to ‘make up’ what you did for 5-10 of those hours because you’ll never remember all of them. But if you complete a daily timesheet, then your project time charges will be accurate when you finally complete your timesheet on Friday. The same holds true with documenting learning experiences throughout the engagement. You’ll have a much better knowledge base to move forward with if you diligently document those lessons learned during the project for discussion during that final session.

Plan ahead. As deployment time nears, remind everyone of the upcoming lessons learned session and finalize a date, time, and place for the meeting or meetings. Distribute what you’ve collected throughout the project as a starting point and encourage the rest of the team members and the customer to be proactively working on their lists to ensure the most productive session possible. Reminding everyone of the need for this session and scheduling it early also helps ensure that attendance and participation will be high – you need to be sure you have secured team members’ availability before you lose them to other projects.

Lead the session. Likely you can perform the lessons learned session in one meeting – especially if people come somewhat prepared. The project manager needs to act as the primary lead and facilitator of this meeting. Things to remember when leading lessons learned discussions:

  • Be positive
  • Do not place blame
  • Focus on successes, not just failures
  • Identify the strategies that led to success
  • Identify which improvement strategies would have the greatest impact

It is also the project manager’s responsibility to be the primary documenter of information that comes out of these discussions. Preferably, a formal template should be prepared or obtained to ensure that information is captured in an orderly and organized format.

Follow-up with notes. Finally, within a few days of the actually session, all information discussed and documented during the meeting should be distributed to all members for final review and comments. It’s critical that the project manager get final concurrence to ensure that all information has been accurately recorded. Once approved by all, a formal version of the lessons learned findings should be distributed to all project team members and to whatever central knowledge base your company uses for capturing formal lessons learned data from engagements.


The lessons learned session, when done right and actually carried out, can provide invaluable information for everyone involved in the project to learn and live by. The key is to do it – and the key to doing it is to plan for it and make it happen as smoothly as possible.

What about our readers? Share your tips on conducting good lessons learned sessions.

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