PMBOK finally expands on lessons learned, but is it enough?

by Sylvie Edwards

Lessons learned in project management are an essential part of improving best practices. As such, the PMBOK is expanded to add project management lessons learned. Is it enough? For as long as I can remember, I have been telling everyone that I can about the virtues of a good lesson-learned process when it comes to doing great project management. For that same amount of time, I have been displeased and confused with the fact that it was not clearly said or established as such in the PMI Body of Knowledge or PMBOK Guide. Then came version six, and my prayers have been answered… or have they?

There is a common myth out there, that it takes the average human being 21 attempts at a new habit for this habit to be acquired as a new consistent practice. Several people have tried to refute Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s work in this area, each with their own view. Regardless, I am thankful that it did not take 21 versions for more thought of the process around lessons learned to make its way into the PMBOK Guide. Are we completely there yet? I don’t think so, but we are making valiant steps towards a clean and workable process.

If you are not in the habit of dissecting the PMBOK Guide from stem to stern as I do every new version, you will probably say that lessons learned were always there and that I am being picky. No, not quite. As practitioners, we talk about lessons learned, we generate them, and we often curse about their lack of effectiveness. This has always been for me a point of discussion that makes it into most classes. With previous versions of the body of knowledge, you would encounter as part of organizational process assets a mention of historical information, and that is where they resided. It is important enough that you would have been told in training but not important enough, you would think to deserve their own name and process.

To this day, generating, agreeing, and using lessons learned in a proper cycle from the closing of one project to the start or initiation of another has been tedious and not documented as well as it should have been. It has always been to me a contradiction in the sense that we use the words lessons learned when in fact most organizations don’t spend enough time to highlight these so that they do make a difference. Think of the power these could have if only we considered them more often.

What would a great lesson-learned process look like?

Imagine an organized system that provides you with a proper template to keep track of lessons learned as they are captured (a lesson learned register or log), which is then used to provide valid and objective content to the project closure report, which is in turn used with other archived documents retrieved from a repository to ensure that new projects are given a strong starting point.

That would make it effortless. I would also bet that it would ensure that we do not “forget” along the way as lessons learned are captured as they occur in the project and not afterward as a second thought. It is much harder to recall than just write down as it occurs.

Now, in order to make it complete, we would need to ensure that the repository is easily accessible and located in a known area of our document archival system.

Yes, I have been dreaming, and I have seen a few of these processes with their supporting systems in action, and it is a thing of beauty. With version six of the PMBOK Guide, PMI does introduce the concept of a risk register/log and talks of a repository. If you are like the majority of my students (reviewing the PMBOK Guide for their PMP exam), you will probably not notice the subtle change in the register to the repository from an input to an output, which might leave you wondering why the change of name. Simple really, when discussing the register, we are in the process of capturing the lessons learned as our project progresses while the repository is where these captured lessons learned will make their way and become historical information or organizational process assets for future use.

So, the short and long of it. I am happy that we finally have the semblance of a lessons-learned process shown through inputs and outputs, but I am left wondering when it will become its own stated process deserving of our full attention.


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