Guide to Lessons Learned in Project Management

By Kate Eby | May 6, 2021

Lessons learned from past projects are tools you can use as a project manager to drive improvement within your team. We’ve compiled expert advice on how to collect, document, and apply lessons learned toward future endeavors. 

In this article, you’ll find a sample lessons learned report, a midproject survey example, and a downloadable report template.

What Are Lessons Learned in Project Management?

The term lessons learned refers to the experience you gain by participating in and completing a project. A team should apply past lessons learned at the beginning of a new venture and compile new findings during and after its completion.

While it is essential to collect lessons learned at the end of a project, it might be beneficial to gather input while in the middle of one as well.

To find out about free project management lessons learned templates for project managers, product managers, project coordinators, moderators, project sponsors, and more, refer to our Free Project Management Lessons Learned Templates article. 

What Is the Purpose of Lessons Learned?

The purpose of documenting and applying the lessons learned is to encourage improvement in best practices for future projects. The goal is to create a team that learns from its missteps and repeats and improves its successes.

Patti Armanini is a Quality Manager with Festo USA and has more than a decade of experience in management. She encourages project managers to “review past lessons learned to avoid making similar mistakes the next time around. But [it is] just as important to leverage the wins going forward, to help streamline the project, and to help remove impediments before they happen.” 

A successful project manager recognizes the processes that help and hinder a team. They can also implement the lessons they have learned to improve those processes continually. 

Seek input on lessons learned from everyone involved in a project. Team members at all levels within the hierarchy have essential contributions to the discussion, and it is wise to gather as much information from as many people as possible. This process can even be a team-building experience in itself, as everyone makes themselves heard.

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Lessons Learned Process in Project Management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) outlines its Lessons Learned Process in Project Management in five steps.

PMBOK 5 Step Vertical
  1. Identify
    Identify the items you can learn from. This should include areas for improvement, as well as emphasis on what your team has done well.

    Example: The team identifies that they could not deliver results by the deadline in Phase Two. Results were due two weeks from the receipt of the brief, but were delivered in three weeks.
  2. Document
    Document and create a list of the lessons learned. This list should be a group effort and contain input from all team members.

    Example: Include the missed deadline on the list, along with the other items brought up by the team.
  3. Analyze
    Analyze the lessons learned, create a report, and share it with team members and other applicable parties. Sometimes, you will need to create multiple reports with the pertinent information for different audiences.

    Example: More time should have been scheduled for the results to be delivered in Phase Two. (Note: Include this information in the team and management reports, but not the shareholder reports, as it is irrelevant for them because the team completed the job on time.)
  4. Store
    Organize and store these reports in a location that is accessible to all interested parties, usually on a drive or in cloud storage.

    Example: Catalog these reports on the shared drive using the company’s standard naming process.
  5. Retrieve
    Use keywords when storing your reports to make them easier to search for and retrieve for future projects.

    Example: When finalizing the schedule for upcoming projects, search keywords like deadline to find references to past lessons learned about realistic timelines for completed projects.

What Is a Lessons Learned Document?

A lessons learned document is the collected results of surveys and team member input throughout the lifecycle of a project. Create a process for gathering input at key points throughout the project, then record and use it to create detailed reports.

It is important to record these initial observations, so you can access them later. This document contains the raw data you will use to write your reports.

How to Document Lessons Learned

A project manager is responsible for documenting and identifying lessons learned throughout the lifecycle of a task or project. A successful project manager will utilize the following strategies:

  • Decide on the metrics you want to document for your reports. These can be expected outcomes vs. results, actionable items, or opportunities for building upon the lessons from previous projects. 
  • Ask the team what went well and what can be improved. Administer a survey or record responses when meeting with the team. 
  • Organize these responses into a document that’s easy to read and reference. These documents should later be used to create your lessons learned report(s). 
  • Collect and store these documents for reference in future projects. These should be stored on a cloud server or a shared drive so that they are accessible for future reference to all members of the team at any time.

You and future teams will use this feedback to learn from your experience. It is important to create processes that streamline the capture and sharing of this information.

How to Capture Lessons Learned in Project Management

A great way to capture lessons learned is by surveying the people working on and observing the project. You might find that you can extract more diverse responses by administering a survey during a project instead of only after it ends. 

One benefit of a midproject survey is that you can identify and correct issues before they become a real problem. Armanini helped create this sample of a midproject survey for project managers:

Midproject Survey Lessons Learned

Midproject Survey Lessons Learned

Another excellent way to capture comments from the team is to hold lessons learned meetings, sometimes called a post-mortem. For more information about post-mortems, read our guide to running a post-mortem and download free post-mortem templates.

How to Run a Lessons Learned Meeting

Lessons learned meetings can occur at any point during a project. During the meeting, your team should share feedback about what went well and what needs improvement. These meetings are also an effective team-building activity, as they are more collaborative than conducting individual surveys. 

Your lessons learned meetings should all follow a similar format and usually begin with a stated agenda. Let your team know what you will cover and what you expect them to contribute. Next, encourage a robust group discussion of the lessons learned during the project, and make sure that you have assigned someone to take the minutes. This discussion should include a critical evaluation of the lessons learned and a plan for how to utilize them in future projects. 

To learn more, read our guide on how to conduct a lessons learned meeting.

How to Write a Lessons Learned Report in Project Management

One of the most critical steps in applying lessons learned is creating lessons learned reports. The purpose of writing a lessons learned report is to consolidate the input from your team and present it to an audience in a concise and legible way.

Step by Step: Write a Lessons Learned Report

When writing a report, consider the following:

  1. Determine the audience for your report. Is this report for stakeholders or project team members? Team member reports will focus more on the day-to-day operations within the project, whereas stakeholders’ reports will highlight the big picture.
  2. Identify the lessons learned in your document that are important to your audience.

    Organize your survey responses and feedback by the type of report they apply to. Many responses might end up in more than one kind of report.
  3. Summarize lessons learned. Offer suggestions for improvements to processes. Also make sure to identify what went well.
  4. Distribute and store the report. Create a folder in the cloud or on a shared drive for reference and for use in future projects.

Lessons Learned Report Sample

Lessons Learned Report Template

Download Completed Lessons Learned Sample Report 

Microsoft Word | Adobe PDF  | Smartsheet

You can use the above sample lessons learned report to display the conclusions from your surveys and meetings, as well as your own observations as a project manager. Download the completed version and use it for reference. You can also edit and customize it based on information that is important to your audience. 

Lessons Learned Report Example

Download Blank Lessons Learned Template

Microsoft Word | Adobe PDF 

Download a blank version of the template for your needs.

How to Share Lessons Learned

The best way to share your findings is to create specific reports for varying engagement levels. The goal of creating a lessons learned report is to distribute your group’s findings among a targeted audience.

  • Know Your Audience: Members at various levels of an establishment care about varying degrees of lessons learned. You will want to present customized reports based on your audience’s engagement in the organization.
    • What to Give Stakeholders: Stakeholders should see the larger scope of a project. They will be interested in things like budgetary concerns and profit margins, long-term timelines and deadlines, and your project’s alignment with other goals within the industry.
    • What to Give Team Members: Team members are interested in the day-to-day operations of a project. Give them a report with an emphasis on individual deadlines (both made and missed), team cohesion and communication, and overall success of the project. Make sure to let them know what they did well, too.
  • Store Reports in a Central Repository: You should store reports in a fully accessible database, such as a shared drive or cloud storage, so that different members of the organization can reference them at any time.
  • Create a Project Lessons List: Create a basic outline of your findings, without going into excess detail. This list can be shared with a wider audience, perhaps through email or a company newsletter.

What Are Examples of Lessons Learned in a Project?

Every completed project provides experience to the people working on it, whether or not it was a success. These lessons can be universal or specific to the task. Below are examples of lessons learned for different levels in an organization.

Examples of Lessons Learned for Project Managers:

  • Support Your Team: Delegate tasks appropriately and enforce realistic deadlines. Foster an environment that encourages collaboration.
  • Communicate Clearly: Check in often with the team and keep communication lines open. Be clear with your expectations.
  • Give Praise Often: Let your team know when they have done something well. As Armanini says, “Don’t forget to reward yourself for those wins!”

Examples of Lessons Learned for Team Members:

  • Ask for Advice: Ask for the input you need from leaders and teammates. 
  • Check In Often: Communicate effectively with all levels of project involvement, and update your manager(s) at regular intervals.
  • Improve Your Work: Take feedback and use it to improve. This will help you learn from your missteps and grow your successes.

Examples of Lessons Learned for Company Leadership:

  • Outline the Big Picture: Clearly define your expectations. Consider budget and time concerns early on in the project’s lifecycle.
  • Insure Against Risk: Examine areas of high risk. Attempt to stay ahead of large-scale delays.
  • Educate Your Team: Use your continuing experience (and that of those around you) to improve processes at every level.

Why Are Lessons Learned Important in Project Management?

Organizations that capture and utilize lessons learned from past projects can more easily avoid mistakes, repeat their successes, and minimize risks on future work. Project managers play an integral role in this process and enable their teams to thrive.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of all new businesses fail in the first five years. A company that commits to documenting and improving its processes stands a much better chance of survival than one that does not. Hiring and retaining stellar project managers ensures that these processes will continuously improve.

Benefits of Lessons Learned in Project Management

By identifying lessons learned, you can capitalize on your successes and take note of your mistakes. Additional benefits of lessons learned in project management include the following:

  • Learn from Experience: Capitalize on your success and avoid past mistakes. “Record lessons learned in real time so that you don’t forget anything along the way,” suggests Armanini.
  • Identify Areas of Inefficiency: Eliminate redundant processes and streamline future endeavours. Get rid of anything that is not helping the team achieve its goals.
  • Document Your Processes: Allow future teams to use your expertise to their advantage. Share your knowledge with those who come after you.
  • Demonstrate Growth: Demonstrate productivity and results with organized reports that date back to past projects. Compare those to reports in the future to track your progress or identify places where you still get hung up.
  • Foster More Cohesive Teams: Increase morale by achieving more wins as a team. 
  • Improve Communication: Involve your team in the process from day one. Encourage them to stay involved by listening to their input.
  • Establish Best Practices: Figure out what works best for your team, then implement and enforce those changes.

Challenges with Lessons Learned in Projects

When you implement lessons learned processes with your team, you will likely run across some challenges. Here are some examples of challenges that project managers face:

  • Future Implementation: It can be challenging to implement the lessons you have learned to future projects. “Being a quality professional, for things that didn't go so well, I tend to lean toward root cause, corrective action (RCCA), and 8D-type investigation. Both methods state the problem, identify causes, and then propose corrections to eliminate or reduce the causes, all in a structured format,” explains Armanini.

    To learn more about root cause analysis and download free root cause templates, read “Free Root Cause Analysis Templates: The Complete Collection.”
  • Time Management: When you’re under a tight deadline, finding time to gather your team’s comments can seem impossible. Make sure to factor in opportunities to collect and analyze lessons learned data so that you don’t leave them out.
  • Organization: Armanini reflects on changes her company made when organizing their lessons learned data. “At first, it was handwritten notes on pre-filled questionnaires or in notebooks or notes on a whiteboard or flipchart, then photos of the notes for future reference. To stay more organized, we have started using Microsoft Teams and a OneNote page.”
  • Blame: “Make your questionnaire anonymous for a team not used to sharing bad things,” advises Armanini. Avoid placing the blame for mistakes on any one member of the team. Furthermore, she says, “Try to find someone to facilitate your session. If I'm running the session, it needs to be with a team that trusts me fully to get honest feedback. Especially if it is a project that did not go very well, use a facilitator. It can help to take some of the emotion out of the session.”

How to Apply Lessons Learned

The most crucial step in applying lessons learned to future projects is identifying those lessons in the first place. Create a system of surveying and collaborating on input with your team, and make sure that you record these responses so that you can access them later. Organize it by team, by task, or by the system most pertinent to you.

Establish timely check-ins with your team members. Hold informal gatherings in between formal meetings, and create a system of collecting weekly or monthly feedback, depending on the scope of your project. You can use these evaluations to check against past lessons learned and to identify new ones as they arise.

Don’t be afraid to implement lessons learned within the same project, rather than waiting until the next one. In fact, one sign of an effective project manager is knowing when you need to nudge a process in a different direction. Use the collected lessons from your institution to guide your team to success.

Best Practices for Lessons Learned in Project Management

It is vital to consider the best practices for your unique team. Some universal best practices when it comes to lessons learned in project management are as follows:

  • Gather Information Often: Survey your team and hold informal meetings. The more data, the better.
  • Document Your Findings: Make sure your reports are well documented and searchable in storage so that you can easily find relevant lessons learned from past enterprises. 
  • Review Past Lessons: Establish a process for reviewing lessons learned at each stage of a project, and update this process as you go. 
  • Involve the Whole Team: Everyone involved in a venture, from intern to management, should have the opportunity to give input.
  • Do Not Place Blame: The team succeeds and makes mistakes as a whole. Foster camaraderie and collaboration, not animosity. 
  • Close the Loop: Hold a project retrospective  to wrap up operations. For more information about project retrospectives, check out our guide to project closing.

Considerations for Gathering Lessons Learned in a Work-from-Home Environment

In a perfect world, you will have the opportunity to conduct lessons learned meetings and surveys in person. But when all or part of a team works from home, you might have additional considerations. 

“It’s easy to get complacent when not working in a structured office environment. Not just the clothes, but also losing interest during meetings because it’s online and not in-person. But since I work in a production environment in an essential industry, we were not completely shut down for long. I’ve been back in the office full time since mid-January. Engineers, purchasing, and the like still mostly work from home,” says Armanini. 

“We turned meeting rooms into large break rooms with few tables for better spacing, and rotated break times to keep fewer team members on break at the same time.” She suggests staying flexible for meeting schedules and survey deadlines when possible to accommodate both groups.

Read our “Experts Hacks and Tips for Working at Home” to learn more about flourishing in an at-home work environment.

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