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Why Lessons Learned are Broken and What You Can Do About It

executive leadership pmo pmo leadership project management project success Sep 13, 2023
Why Lessons Learned are Broken and What You Can Do About It

It would be unimaginable for the frontrunner in a race to make it to the finish line and then stop before crossing it.  But let’s say it does happen; a runner stops one step short, throwing out their chances for a win. 

That doesn’t make sense, you may reason. But do you do a similar thing when it comes to managing projects? You may execute flawlessly throughout the duration of your project and may even be ahead of schedule. But you stop just short of the finish line by not closing out your project.  

Closing out a project is a key phase of any project lifecycle and has many activities. It includes the final deliverable review, client acceptance, contract close-out, resource release and project celebration, to name a few. It also includes gathering Lessons Learned, which can make all of your future projects winners as well. 

What Are Lessons Learned? 

Lessons Learned sessions go by many names. They may be called a blameless post-mortem, after-action review, post-project review, project retrospective, or any variation thereof. The purpose is the same regardless of what it’s called: to systematically capture and document the knowledge, experiences, and insights gained throughout the project’s lifecycle. Why? Because it helps organizations and project teams improve future projects. 

Why Lessons Learned are Broken 

The idea of lessons learned sounds great but applying it can be a different story. This is because the mindset that most people bring to these sessions is short on remembering one’s own faults, and long on recalling those of others. It’s human nature to reflect on what worked well as a result of you and your team. Then comes what didn’t work so well as a result of your peers and their teams. Lessons Learned sessions can deteriorate into defensive blamestorming sessions, and quickly become unproductive. 

What can be done to prevent this? 

Flip the Script on Lessons Learned 

Rather than come into a Lessons Learned session with what others could have done better, why not flip the script? Come into the session with what you and your team could have done better. Leave egos, defensiveness, and insecurity at the door. And don’t call it Lessons Learned anymore, call it a Project Debrief.  

A Project Debrief is an objective review of a project and requires a great deal more trust and personal accountability. Your project team needs to feel comfortable revealing what they could have done better (aka mistakes, in some cases) and confident that there won’t be repercussions for revealing their shortcomings. This comes with a caveat: if the exact same mistakes are made time and time again, you may need to take further action to rectify the situation. 

 How to Perform a Project Debrief 

A project debrief works very similar to a lessons learned session, with the exception of its focus. Lessons Learned is focused on what someone else could have done better, while a Project Debrief is focused on what you could have done better. 

When the project kicks off, let everyone know that you plan on everyone crossing the finish line together, and that there will be project debriefs conducted throughout the life of the project. Explain the nuances of a project debrief and how it’s different from lessons learned. Having multiple Project Debriefs during the project allows everyone to keep up with their suggestions for improvement along the way, rather than try to remember everything for a single Debrief at the end of the project.  

For teach Debrief, including the final Project Debrief at the project’s close, bring everyone together for an open discussion. Have them say what they could have done better and will do differently on the next project. Who starts? You! As the project’s leader, you need to set the tone and be open and transparent. Discuss what you could have done better, and bring up what you did well that you plan on doing again.  

Have someone serve as a scribe during this meeting to capture the discussion. Then, make sense of the output by categorizing each item as Start, Stop, or Continue. For the next project, Start doing things that were not done, Stop doing things that should not have been done, and Continue doing things that worked.   

We also recommend inviting other Project Leaders to attend these sessions.  Far too often, lessons learned documents are stored in an archive folder never to be seen again.  The Debrief is a great opportunity for other PMs to hear what worked well, and not, that they can leverage on their future projects as well. 

Finally, assign dates and owners and turn the results of the project debrief into a mini project with a due date of the start of the next project (if possible). 

Does a Project Debrief Work? 

The Blue Angels think so. Read Ask These 4 Questions at Your Next Project Debrief to see how these precision aviators leverage the power of a project debrief to improve each show. 

So, your next project should be run like you are running a race. Make it across the finish line, close it out, and make sure you perform lessons learned a project debrief! 


How to Change from Lessons Learned to Project Debrief 

The biggest difference between Lessons Learned and Project Debrief is your team’s attitude. Change from “You could have done this better” to “I could have done this better” by: 

  1. Determining What You Are Doing Now - Reflect on your past lessons learned sessions. Are they defensive blamestorming sessions where project teammates are afraid to say anything? If they are, you need to make a change towards project debriefs. 
  2. Educating Your Team on the Differences - At the kickoff of your next project, let everyone know how the project debrief session will be run at the end of this project. Mandate that everyone keep up with their own Start, Stop, Continue suggestions during the lifetime of the project.
  3. Conduct a Project Debrief - At the end of the project, bring everyone together to review how the project went. You, as the project leader, start with what you could have done better, thus setting the tone and “safe space” for the rest of the team. 
  4. Implement Changes to Your Next Project(s) - Gather everything that came out of the project debrief and categorize it by Start, Stop, Continue, and assign owners and due dates for completion. Rinse and repeat after every project. 


  • Project Debrief - A session where project team members come together to review and discuss the project's outcomes, processes, and experiences. The emphasis is on what each person could have done better or differently rather than what other people could have done better or differently. 

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