A lesson learned is useful project management information gained through experience that your organization should retain for future use and that can be relevant to other organizations. Depending on the lesson, it could be a valuable technique or an outcome that you wish to repeat or it could be an undesirable result you wish to avoid. Often, identifying your lessons learned is as simple as asking the question, "What worked well or what didn't work so well?" Lessons learned can be categorized as:
- something learned from experience,
- an adverse experience that is captured and shared to avoid a recurrence,
- an innovative approach that is captured and shared to promote repeat application, or
- the knowledge acquired from an innovation or an adverse experience that leads to a process improvement.
Why are lessons learned important?
Ultimately, lessons learned are a matter of improving the productivity and efficiency of a process. Individuals or teams can benefit from the knowledge gained through the experience of those who have gone before them. Many organizations that label themselves as "learning organizations" often overlook their own experiences as a platform for learning. They assume that their collective experiences are passed along to the next person or group. To be considered a learning organization we must be proactive, capture lessons learned, and "cross-pollinate" the concepts through training or other techniques that expose the information to others who may benefit from it. The application of lessons learned helps produce project teams which operate with less risk of failure, increased efficiency, and more awareness of their surroundings.
What does a good lesson-learned look like?
Documenting a useful lesson-learned requires a clear understanding of the purpose and importance of documenting the successes and/or failures of a project. Because lessons learned serve as an important management tool in retaining organizational knowledge, reducing project risk, and improving project performance, they must have relevance to future projects. To build relevance into your lesson-learned and make them of value to others in addressing similar situations, you must:
- identify the project management element in which the problem arose
- describe how the problem arose and define the problem or positive development encountered, and
- provide concrete, practical solutions or recommendations based on this experience.
Statements such as "Clearly defined roles and responsibilities, along with a strong focus on communication channels, are essential to project success." are not effective lessons learned. There is no context for the statement, and without context such a statement serves only as a basic Project Management best practice. While requiring more effort to develop, the examples in the appendix make the same statement, but do so in a context that defines what project management element is affected by the lesson learned, what the problem was that led to the lesson being learned, and how the lesson learned can serve future projects before a problem arises.
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