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A Guide for Sponsors: Risk Management and Lessons Learned

Although the term “lessons learned” is commonly heard now, many organisations, certainly in Australia, do not actually utilise this valuable opportunity for risk management.

If your organisation has no process for lessons to be collected, stored and used later, the enormous value that can be gained by learning from an earlier investment, is being lost.

Projects are temporary constructs and the project team is usually disbanded when the project is completed. Therefore, particularly if team members were appointed on a contract basis, the hands on knowledge accumulated leaves the organisation when the project is closed.

If your project team was resourced internally, although some people may recall some details, it’s usually not for long.  Every organisation we work with is busy trying to keep up with a myriad of projects and other pressures as part of business as usual activities.  With the need to move quickly and be flexible, good records of lessons learned represents tangible value at a later time.

We suggest that you, as the project Sponsor, ask to see details of lessons learned from previous projects, right at the beginning of your new initiative;  so that is, during the start-up phase.

Relevant lessons will also be useful to you, your Project Control Board and Project Manager in the preparation of an outline Business Case.

Further, the idea is an essential component of any project using the PRINCE2® methodology for project management.  The methodology describes lessons learned as a “principle”.  This means that when deciding how to tailor the methodology for use on your project, the related tasks for learning and continuous improvement cannot be removed.  If your project does not follow the principles, it is not considered to be a PRINCE2® project.

The real question is, why don’t organisations record, store and utilise lessons learned?  Sometimes it is genuinely that nobody has made the time, but we also know that in some environments, people would prefer not to have to create a record admitting that tasks could have been managed better.

There is a preference to discuss only the aspects that went well.  Unfortunately, in that case, the old adage applies:  if you keep on doing the same things you’ve always done, you’ll always get the same things you’ve always got.

Organisations with strong leadership and which encourage creativity and innovation honestly look at where things go wrong to achieve continuous improvement.  Running projects necessarily involves risk, so using the principle of lessons learned from previous experience, incorporates risk management from the first phase.

If your organisation doesn’t have a process, lessons learned can easily be collected and/or stored in either Excel or a collection of reports produced as Word documents.  The process needs to be promoted and supported widely so that there’s experience gathered from every project investment.

We’ve published lessons learned from a project run by a major health insurer with a budget of $2.5M and which was18 months in duration.  The project was a consolidation of 3 x IT departments due to the acquisition of 2 other health fund businesses.  It’s a 1 pager and is well worth the read.

Lessons Learned Series 1 was prepared with our governance program for Project Sponsors and Control Boards.