Lessons learned: When your team is not a team anymore

by Sylvie Edwards

I have been a strong supporter of all things to do with lessons learned. I will continue to do so. Does the value of having good lessons learned outweigh any drawbacks that I have ever seen. The only story of caution around the use of lessons learned that I would share will be in the following article, and it is not about their use or the fact that we need lessons learned but about the fact that once you have lessons learned you really need to align them with your new projects honestly in order for them to work for you.

When starting a project, I go looking for lessons learned to support my planning process. Lessons learned should not be applied without a good review to see if there is a good fit with the current elements of the project we are undertaking. The fit can come from several areas, but at a minimum, one must consider some key elements of impact for the lessons to truly be of use.

The first consideration is similarities in terms of technical aspects. This is often the first alignment and only point that we look for when seeking lessons learned for our projects. Once the technical elements are covered, we can then look at similarities in our stakeholder group which happens to be the second-largest area of alignment that needs consideration. One project done with one set of stakeholders will differ from another based on the makeup of that set. A good stakeholder analysis exercise will help us see the alignment or misalignment points and recognize from the lessons learned how to apply different approaches to gaining commitment.

There are quite a few other areas where we can look at alignment to lessons learned in order to assist us. You can look at procurement elements such as vendors, contract types, and specific procurement needs. You can also look at risk and see where we have similar types or categories of risks.

One area that we sometimes forget to pay attention to is that of the makeup of our team. Here’s where my tale of caution comes in.

Several years ago, I was part of a project during the merger of the company I was working with at the time, involving the migration and consolidation of several notes servers and domains.

The project in Canada was key to the amalgamation of the two organizations in order to clear the way to become one. As part of office moves and consolidations, we also consolidated, renamed, and rebranded a full notes network.

Our team was captivated by the work. As a group, we were truly on track and on task and accomplished our mandate well ahead of the six months compliance deadline, without any major setbacks.

We had done well, and our lessons learned provided a step-by-step clear mapping of what to do or not do to accomplish this work. Each of the team members went back to their operational areas, and I was put on another project in our Toronto office.

A few months later came the news that we had been chosen as the team to assist a set of Caribbean and Central American offices to transition their domain. These offices were in most cases, lacking in resources at their disposal to complete this work on top of regular operations. Should be a breeze, we thought at that moment as we had done this so easily the first go around. We just need to follow our lessons learned “map” and voila.

Not so fast… By the time we got ready to do this again about six months had passed, and a few key things were not the same. The only thing is that we did not take them into account until later and these things would prove to have a greater impact than expected.

The first element that was clearly not the same and vastly different was the stakeholder group. We did account for that but not enough. We went from a unified, country to dealing with merging 10 to 12 small nations, each with varying infrastructure, resources, and requirements.

What would prove to be our greatest challenge would actually be the members of our original team. As well-coordinated and tuned in as we were for the first project, the same could not be said for the second. Everything was going awry.

One team member was dealing with a newborn, another member was in the middle of a divorce, and I, the PM was actually pregnant. Wow! The hormones and the emotions that we went through with this implementation.

Needless to say, we thought we could do it as the lessons learned showed us it had worked before, but it did not. We had too many misalignment points and it crumbled in many areas. The lessons learned report from this second project shows a series of poor decisions and even poorer team synergy. We lost ourselves for a moment.

We did complete the project but not without a lot of aggravation, modified budgets, timeline shifts, sweat, and tears (mostly from me and my hormones).

So, a word of caution, when looking at past lessons learned and similarities to build your plan for a new project. Don’t forget to take into account the changes in the life circumstances of the core team. You cannot truly duplicate a project, item by item. You will have some differences and those differences can be large enough to make it a problem project.

For all, you know your team might not be a team anymore.


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