Expert Tips on Lessons Learned [Video]

In this interview, major projects PM Karlene Agard and I talk about how to set up a project right and then discuss lessons learned. The first 1.30m are me padding while waiting to get Karlene into the discussion – she was ready, but Facebook was keeping us waiting – so feel free to skip that first 90 seconds!

Transcript below, in case you prefer to read, without the first 90-seconds of waffle.

Karlene: Hello.

Elizabeth: Hi. It looks like you’re on the beach.

Karlene: No. No, I’m actually in an office at the moment, but it’s just a particularly nice part of the office.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we’ve got quite good weather here as well, which makes a change because we’ve had pretty bad weather, for the south of England anyway, obviously. Not as bad as some of the places in the world. Thank you very much for joining us today. I know that we had a chat the other day, and we’ve got lots of cool stuff to talk about. I think perhaps it would be a good start to introduce yourself to everybody. Tell us a bit about you and your background.

Karlene: Sure. Thank you for having me here. I’ve worked in the rail industry for four and a half years. I worked in safety reporting, and then I moved to change project management, and then I worked as a risk and value analyst on major project division within Network Rail. During my time there, I really enjoyed working with major projects and helping them to get set up for success. Starting them correctly from the beginning. A lot of the time, I noticed that there’s this desire in the project management community to get things done. People will have their ideas of what they’d like to do, and they’ll look to progress with it, but they won’t necessarily step back and say, “What is it we’re really trying to achieve, and what is the best way to achieve that?”

One of the things that you do within value management is come up with a framework, which will help you to say, “These are the outcomes that we need from this project,” and then you can use that to guide you throughout the project management process to help you figure out what is the best option to deliver, and get you that outcome that you need.

Elizabeth: That’s all about starting it right, isn’t it?

Karlene: Yes, yes. Absolutely. Since then, I’ve moved to TFL working as a risk manager and currently Parliament, but actually not working within a project manager role there, and I will have to say that the views expressed in this video are my own and not representative of my workplace.

Elizabeth: No, fair enough. I’m sure that some of the stuff you work on, you can’t talk about anyway. We won’t talk about that. You talked a little bit about working major projects, and setting up a project right, and the value management side of things. Not everybody works on big projects, but I’m sure there’s some commonalities. What would you say would be the things that project managers should think about doing at project initiation?

Karlene: At the beginning, you really need to understand the core outcomes that you need delivered from this project. Have that clearly agreed with the project management team. You need your sponsors on board with that, and any senior stakeholders within your organisation that are party to this need to be on board. Really, a lot of the time, they’ll be the people that will, later on down the line, be introducing changes and scope changes. If you get them involved right from the beginning, then you have the best chance of having a project scope that is bought into by the people that need to buy into it.

Right at the beginning, you need to clearly understand and define what the outcomes are that you need, and in order to do that, you have a great tool in value management called functional analysis. That’s just about understanding your core objectives and clearly outlining them. It provides you with a framework, and you can use that in so many different ways. You start off with your high level objectives and you very simply state what it is that you’re looking to achieve, and then you come up with secondary objectives, and really, it’s functionality that you need, and then build up a diagram which reflects that outcomes that you need. The idea is that we do that … Sorry.

Elizabeth: It’s all right. Would that diagram look like a mind map?

Karlene: Somewhat. I wish I’d brought something that I could show you. My arm’s getting tired. Let me try and change the angle. You write a high level objective on the left side of the page, and then you’ve got your secondary objectives coming out of that. Basically, you’ve got a small point at the left where you have maybe one high level objective for the whole programme. Then, to the right, you’ve got branches coming out of that, and you’ll have that at each stage. You have secondary objectives, and tertiary objectives, and potentially some following on from that.

The idea there is that you keep it really high level, so you’re not dictating how you do it, you’re just dictating what it is that you want done. Then, later on down the process, you can say, “These are all the different ways that we can achieve it based on what it is that we need in terms of functionality.”

Elizabeth: Okay, so get really clear about the objectives. Simon’s asked a question, actually, underneath the video. “How do you help people express their appetite and tolerance to risk?” I’m guessing that, from what you just described, risk doesn’t really come into it, because at the moment, you’re just describing what you want to do, not how you’re going to do it. Is there something that you can do at the beginning of a project to help people put risk front of mind?

Karlene: Yes. I mean, one of the things that I like to do is understand that high level risk. Particularly with major projects, because of the significance and the scale, they tend to introduce risk to the organisation. You can look at the strategic objectives of the organisation and say, “How is it that this project could impact achievement of those objectives?” You really need to make sure that you’re looking at opportunities as well as threats, because people tend to think threats automatically when you say risk, but opportunities are important to consider as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we talk a lot, well … Well, I’m writing about risk management. I would always write don’t forget opportunities, but I don’t think people think about positive risk. Certainly not in my world, anyway. Maybe in IT stuff and projects, it’s a bit different, but I can certainly see the value of doing it, particularly in major projects, because things could go so right and that would have a massive implication. I have to really peer at the screen, because I’ve taken my glasses off. In pursuit of opportunity, which is the upside out compared to the baseline cost. Yes. You put extra effort into doing things that are going to give you the biggest return.

Karlene: Yes. That’s one of the benefits of value management. Because people often have that negative thought when you think about risk, it uses different tools from what you typically use within risk, and so it allows you to think in a slightly different way, and be a bit more creative about the opportunities that are available. It’s one of the reasons why I really like value management. I think the two, value and risk, go together. They’re really intertwined, but it seems like the value management side isn’t as recognised.

Elizabeth: How would I find out more about value management? Have you got books that you recommend?

Karlene: You’ve got the Institute of Value Management. You’ve got Lawrence Miles. He’s produced a really great guide. He’s recognised as a founding father of value management. I can send you the details of some books that I recommend, of that in particular. The Institute of Value Management is very good, and they’ve got a great training framework as well. Also, their website has quite a bit of resources. You can join the LinkedIn group, too. Also, people can get in touch with me if they’re curious as well, because I’ll be happy to share my experience.

Elizabeth: Thank you very much. What are you currently working on? I know that while your interest is in value management, you’ve been telling me about a very interesting project about lessons learned yesterday.

Karlene: Yes. I am quite interested in lessons learned exercises and that’s really part of value management. What you typically see is, so obviously, with the lessons learned exercise, you look at what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly in a project, and see what is it that we can learn from both of those things to improve interesting future. Typically, lessons learned sessions take place at the very end of a project and I think that’s quite a waste, because there’s so much that can be learnt and rather than saying, “Oh, well. We messed up there,” you can use that to shape the rest of the project, to improve it.

That’s one of the key things for me. Don’t just do it at the very end. You need to do it at different stage gates, for example. You can say, “Okay.” You may be working with a contractor throughout the project, if you’ve had issues at the beginning, don’t just keep those going to the end and then say at the end that final lesson’s learned. “Oh, well. That hasn’t gone well. We messed up there.” What you can do instead is say-

Karlene: “This hasn’t gone well.” Yeah. Well with the red zones, you really need to understand why, what’s happened, why it’s happened, what the drivers are, so that you can get to the root solution, which will allow you to figure out a way to improve in the future, and you can use that on the same project. Also, when you’re starting off a project, you should be looking at the lessons learned from previous projects, you should be looking at the risk registers. There’s no need to reinvent the well every single time. Use the knowledge that you have available within the organisation.

Elizabeth: Another comment. Thank you, Jonathan, for that book recommendation. I’ll take a look at that. “Institution has LFE at the start.” What’s LFE? Lessons something? I don’t know if the comment explains, sorry. I think agile projects tend to have agile retrospectives at the end of a sprint, so the culture is there in our methodology. I’m a big fan of doing lessons learned. If you’re then capturing things to make things better for this actual project, and not waiting to the end where you’re just going to do a big thing, put the notes in the drawer, never look at it again. That’s not helpful.

Karlene: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Karlene: That’s one of the key things, really. You need to also make sure when you’re doing lessons learned reports, you tend to find the actual workshop itself is really beneficial. People talk about things, you come up with ideas and improvements, and then it gets put in a report, and then it’s eternally archived, and then nothing happens with all of that learning, and it’s lost when people leave the organisation. You need to make sure that the lessons that you’re capturing during the workshop are embedded into the organisation. The actions and lessons need to drive change within the organisation. You may come up with specific actions, so it may be a specific process element or a detail needs to change within your organisation so that you’re better able to succeed in the future. Also, you need to make sure that those lessons can be found. If you’ve got a SharePoint, for instance, you can put metadata onto those lessons.

You did ask me about what I’m working on at the moment, and I’m doing a report for the APM Project Magazine, looking at lessons learned and how social media is used within lessons learned. There are a number of questions I was asked to contribute to that report, and I felt like there were some things I was comfortable answering myself. Some of them were talking about how widely social media is used to distribute lessons learned. For me, I didn’t feel competent answering that for myself, because I can talk for the organisations that I’ve worked with, but obviously, that doesn’t represent the whole spectrum of project management experience. I sent out a survey, which I’ll be happy to share with people who are watching this.

Elizabeth: Stick the link in the comments after this.

Karlene: Yes. Yes, I will do. I really appreciate if you wouldn’t mind completing the survey. It’s got about six questions, it’s really quick, but just answer a few questions about how lessons learned is used in your organisation, sorry, how social media is used in your organisation to distribute lessons learned. There are a few challenges that I’ve been finding with that, and that’s organisations may be reticent to share, and it could be for reputational reasons, something’s gone wrong, people don’t really want to put that in the public domain. It could be for commercial reasons, so you don’t want your competitors to learn from what you’re doing and improve as you’re improving. Then, also, you’ve got internal barriers. People are wary about speaking as themselves and saying something on behalf of the organisation, and concerned that they may not be able to share adequately, or they may get in trouble for what they share.

Elizabeth: Yeah. This might be a question that you’ve come across when you do lessons learned.

Karlene: Oh, Jonathan.

Elizabeth: Jonathan’s asked, I don’t know if you can see the comments.

Karlene: I can see some of them.

Elizabeth: “How do you capture lessons that you can’t write them out?”

Karlene: “How do you capture lessons that you can’t write down?” Oh, that’s a very good question.

Elizabeth: Is that because, someone from lessons, I imagine, will be too politically sensitive to document lessons learned, because you can’t put that particular person, room, or project. You’d have to find a creative way of doing it, which would dilute what you’re talking about to the point that it’s probably not useful anymore. I can see that, especially in some of the top secret or commercially sensitive projects that you might have worked on, the major projects, some of the things are so nebulous or so private that you can’t document them.

Karlene: Yes, and that, freedom of information can also make that a particular challenge within certain organisations. I think, if you can’t write it down, then you have to either try and make it generic or you have to rely on word of mouth and it needs to be embedded organizationally. You need to communicate with people. I mean, having it documented is the easiest way, but if you can’t write it, then you have to speak about it with the relevant people. If it’s a personnel issue, then that may be something that needs to be raised with HR or maybe there are lessons to be learnt about recruitment or how behavioural issues are challenged.

That was also one of the things that has been interesting from the survey results. Writing is one way to capture lessons learned, but you can also do it via short videos, which I think is a really good tip. You can have a project manager just do a quick recording and say … This also will prevent it from being too onerous to do. Just a quick recording to say, “In this type of situation, you might want to do this instead of this, because we found that this was an issue, and this is what it led to, so try doing this instead.” Then you can just upload that onto your knowledge management system, for instance. That’s really beneficial. Sorry?

Elizabeth: I’m a big fan of videos. When you’re talking about sharing on social media, you’re talking about sharing in the public domain, being very transparent, aren’t you? Are you? Would you say something like Slack is social media, or is that just an internal comms channel?

Karlene: That’s a good question. One of the things that I’ve found … I’ve spoken with Jonathan, and that was really helpful. He’s got the major projects knowledge hub, which he’s been working on. Major project management knowledge hub, which he’s been working on, and that has a number of different tiers. Some communities are open and some communities are closed. Now, the benefit of that is that when it’s a closed community, it’s clearly known who’s writing what and who has access to see what, so people can be a bit more open and share things that they wouldn’t share in the public domain.

Then there are some communities which are open access and anyone can get into see what’s on there, and also to contribute. That’s a really beneficial approach, because then there’s not that filtering and screening. I think, for social media, some of it can be open, some of it can be closed. I would say Yammer counts as social media, because you’ve got that interactive element, you’ve got people taking freely, and it’s online. I would include Yammer as social media. That can also be a good tool in the same way that I’ve mentioned, you can put lessons up there, you can use metadata. You can search for videos or text descriptions of lessons learned in Yammer as well. There are a number of organisations using Yammer as a tool.

Elizabeth:  Okay, great. Well, thank you very much. I think we want to do your survey. If we do it, do we get to see the results? The results will be in the APM magazine, won’t they? Project magazine?

Karlene: I’m not necessarily going to publish the whole results there. If you’re interested in seeing all of the results, then message me, and I’ll be able to share … Some of the questions are binary or multiple choice questions, and I’ll certainly be happy to share them with people directly if they are interested. They can get in touch with me, my name is Karlene, you’ll see my spelling there. Just find me on LinkedIn, get in touch, and I’ll be happy to share those results with you. Some of the questions have text answers, now, I haven’t asked people’s permission to share those unedited, so I probably would be hesitant to do that without getting that permission, specifically, but I will be using the overarching themes and knowledge that I’ve got from that to inform what I put in the article.

Elizabeth: Great. Okay, well I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much for giving up some time this afternoon to come onto Facebook, and to share your experience, and all the cool stuff you’ve done about project initiations, and also your experience with lessons learned. That’s been really interesting. Thank you very much.

Karlene: Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s been good speaking to you.

Elizabeth: No, it’s great to share the screen with somebody. Yeah, so, there only remains for me to say thanks very much for everybody who joined us live, and if you’re watching the replay, I hope that you enjoy that, too. I will see you next week in the next Facebook Live Q&A. If anybody out there would like to do what Karlene has stepped up to do today, and share your area of expertise, then please do get in touch, because this is our group, so we might as well all draw on the experiences of everybody. Thanks very much everybody, and have a fantastic weekend.

Karlene: Thanks, bye.

Elizabeth: Bye.