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Project Reflections: There are No Mistakes – Only Lessons Learned

March 26, 2012

During my project management career, one of my favorite job duties is discussing the project after it’s closed to find out what worked well and what can be improved upon for the next project.  When conducting a “lessons learned” session it is important to remember that there are no mistakes – only lessons.  And those lessons are a part of a growth process of trial, error and then experimentation.  Then the cycle continues.

With that said, as part of a continuous improvement process, documenting those lessons helps the project team discover the root causes of problems that occurred and gives the team the opportunity to avoid those problems in later project stages or future projects. It also provides a clear history and the opportunity to see trends specifically if those lessons learned (whether positive or negative) are actually being repeated during each project.

The session also allows the project team to discuss the processes that worked well and build upon those processes so the next time around the overall project is even better.

Discussing the project with open eyes and a non-judgmental attitude can also bring the project team together as a cohesive unit, giving empowerment and gratitude to those involved.  It’s extremely important to view a “lessons learned” discussion as a powerful and positive tool.  Remember, that the successful experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that were unsuccessful.

When conducting a lessons learned session it is important to carefully craft your questions to gather all the necessary information.  Below are a few sample questions you can use to start the dialogue.

General Questions

  • Are you proud of our finished deliverables? If yes, please give feedback.  If no, please specify.
  • What was the single most frustrating part of the project? How would you do things differently next time to avoid this frustration?
  • What was the most gratifying or professionally satisfying part of the project?
  • Which of our methods or processes worked particularly well?
  • Which of our methods or processes were difficult or frustrating to use?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the project, what would you change?

Project Plan

  • Did we have the right people assigned to the right project roles? (Consider subject matter expertise, technical contributions, review and approval, and other key roles) If no, how can we make sure that we get the right people next time?
  • Describe any early warning signs of problems that occurred early or later in the project.
    • How should we have reacted to these signs?
    • How can we be sure to notice these early warning signs next time?
  • Were the deliverables, specifications, milestones, and specific schedule elements/dates clearly communicated? If not, how could we improve this?


  • Did all the important project players have creative input into the creation of the design specifications? If not, who was missing and how can we assure their involvement next time?
  • Did those who reviewed the design specifications provide timely and meaningful input? If not, how could we have improved their involvement and the quality of their contributions?


  • Were the members of our Core Group Pilot truly representative of our target audience? If not, how could we assure better representation in the future?
  • Did the test lab, equipment, documentation, and support staff help to make the test an accurate representation of how the system will be used in the “real world?” If not, how could we have improved on these items?
  • Did we get timely, high-quality feedback about how we might improve our deliverables? If not, how could we get better feedback in the future and from whom?
  • Was our deployment strategy accurate and effective? How could we improve this strategy?
  • Did our hand-off of deliverables to the user represent a smooth and easy transition? If not, how could we have improved this process

Remember that learning lessons do not end.  Every project has old lessons that keep popping up and new lessons that you never could have predicted.  These lessons are repeated until learned and may present itself in various forms until you have learned that lesson.  When you have learned that lesson, you can move on to the next lesson.  Discussing those lessons just helps you make a smarter and more proactive move to the next lesson to be gained.

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