The Project Notebook

Learning From “Lessons Learned”

By Susan Peterson, MBA, PMP
Copyright 2007, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

The recent terrible fires in southern California are yet another reminder of the ongoing battle of human beings against the elements. Every part of the planet has its challenges with the ravages of nature. Whether it be flood, fire, severe storms, or other disasters, each human response effort to these events is a project. In some situations responses have been planned well in advance of an actual disaster. However, others are hastily developed under pressure in crisis mode. Regardless of the level of planning, all such responses include “after the fact” scrutiny from a variety of sources. This column focuses on “lessons learned” an effective process rather than only a hunt for the guilty followed by punishment.

“We must have done something right.”
So often the practice of reviewing a project after its closure dwells only on those things that went wrong. While organizations want to utilize best practices in their functional operations, they often do not identify best practices that are employed in managing projects. Some areas where effective project management techniques can be identified include addressing risks proactively, sharing resources across projects, outsourcing management, and vendor analysis. For example, capturing how resources were shared by merging schedules of two projects and adjusting deliverables is an invaluable practice that can be reused for virtually any future project. Correlating vendor performance with specific tangible deliverables is another technique that can benefit a wide variety of upcoming projects. In any case the first emphasis in assessing lessons learned should be to highlight the practices that were effective and to determine how those practices can be communicated to other project managers and can be documented for ready access in the future.

“When all else fails, blame the project manager.”
It is true that responsibility for addressing project problems rests with the project manager. However, in some situations the project manager is doomed to failure by causes beyond his/her control. While there are any number of project problem causes, let’s focus on those caused by an organization’s project culture and attitude. There are far too many organizations that believe that there is no such thing as a “successful” project. The prevailing attitude is that projects never accomplish anything, always run over budget, and never finish on time. Yet the causes often are rooted in the organization and its actions. If projects do not have documented and approved goals, it is impossible to know if they achieve success. If they are funded before they are planned, then the budgets are meaningless. Likewise, a project that has a completion date set before it is planned can seldom successfully meet that date. The “lesson to be learned” in this type of situation is that the organization must assess what it needs to do in order to provide and environment where projects have a “fighting chance” to succeed. If an organization does not support effective project management methodology, then the majority of its projects will fail.

“No pain, no gain.”
Even if lessons learned from project problems and mistakes are well documented, the real benefit is derived only if the true causes are proactively addressed. Instead, many organizations wait for the next project to experience the same problems before recognizing that aggressive action should have been taken well in advance. It takes tremendous strength and courage to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles, such as a lengthy sign off process, that can thwart effective and timely project management. Addressing the political aspects, such as lack of sponsor support or mid-project budget cuts, takes much perseverance to uncover and effectively identify means to keep these actions from occurring on future projects. The entire lessons learned process is wasted unless problem causes are eliminated or mitigated.

Our thoughts are with all of the people who have been impacted by the recent firestorms. It is a long process to deal with the many aspects of recovery. We can only hope that the lessons learned are effectively applied in advance of the next disaster that inevitably will occur.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management Certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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Projects by “The Skin of Our Teeth”

Thornton Wilder called it “the most ambitious project I have ever approached.” His play, The Skin of Our Teeth, is an allegory of the cosmic life-cycle of mankind. It asserts that we are always close to extinction due to natural disasters and our inability to learn from past mistakes. Our history is not linear, but cyclical. At the end of each cycle, we somehow manage to always rebuild and move forward. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. This cycle of life has always fascinated me.

After over 25 years of participating in, leading, and observing projects, I can assert this same cycle exists in the world of projects. Projects used to end in “post mortems” — today the more politically correct and sensitive term is “lessons learned”. Or more like “lessons not learned”, because I have seen projects repeat some of the same mistakes over and over again. And like Wilder’s family, the Antrobuses, the project manager and participants pick themselves up, dust off, and try again.

This blog is dedicated to lessons learned, lessons not learned, and generally interesting stories of project management that both educate and amuse. Each week I’ll post one story from a “project notebook”. The intent isn’t to name names or embarass, so any lesson learned without a positive outcome won’t name the parties involved. By covering this type of material, we can all hopefully avoid those continued mistakes that lead to our undoing. Why keep doing the things that lead to our failure or downfall?

I’d also like to invite you, my readers, to submit lessons learned for me to write about. Or perhaps you just have a question about project management I can answer for you. Just drop me a line at

In the meantime, I wish you all successful projects!

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