Learning Lessons

21 April, 2014

One of the important processes that you learn about when studying for PMP® certification is Close Project or Phase. Closing a project is important. We need to reach a point when the goals of the project have been met and the customer has signed off on the job. Senior management needs to know that the effort is complete so that the actual outlay on the project can be compared to the revenue the project has generated.

Similarly, project team members need to have closure. They need to know that their efforts produced something tangible. So a project post-mortem meeting is a useful celebration of the achievement, as well as a line in the sand – development has finished and maintenance has begun.

Sadly, some corporate cultures make project post-mortems into Torquemada-style inquisitions, where the event is used to find scapegoats for project failures or inefficiencies. This should never be the goal of a post-mortem. It is a time to review the events that made up the project. It is a time to highlight the achievements and a time to acknowledge the disasters that might have occurred along the way.

We need to accept our human weaknesses and budget for things going wrong. PMPs® study risk management in order to become aware that projects are never 100% certain. If things went wrong on this project, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that things go wrong with most projects. The main thing is to learn from the experience and not to make the same mistakes again.

Having sweated for your PMP® or other project management certification, it is sobering to realize that employers are only interested in hiring project managers who have experience of the types of project they want managed. This is in recognition that project management builds on experience as much as on best practice processes. A project manager who has weathered a rough project is going to do a much better job on the next one. Sadly, being associated with a project failure often means being shown the door rather than a new project.

Realizing that the lessons learned at the frontline of project management is vital, many companies have embraced the idea of recording the lessons learned on the project. This exercise helps make the post-mortem less of a finger pointing exercise and more of a rite of passage. As Friedrich Neitzsche said "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger".

Unfortunately, recording the lessons learned and archiving them away into the corporate database is not really good enough. Although we PMPs® can call these Organizational Process Assets and feel good that we closed out our project properly, there often seems to be a disconnect between one project and another.

The missing link seems to be from the post-mortem of a finished project to the kick-off of the next project. Do we ever invite the project managers from other projects into our kick-off meetings and canvass their advice? Do we ever involve them in our risk identification? It is really interesting to learn what risks have materialized in the past and how they were dealt with.

Of course, there is a caveat to this idea: bitter experience can make us risk-averse. How many enthusiastic project managers have been held back by the elder statesmen in the company shaking their heads and saying: “We tried that and it didn’t work”. The discussion never seems to reach beyond the fact that it didn’t work, to what were the obstacles? Maybe advances in technology, or a different marketplace has changed the playing field? Lessons learned in the past need to be viewed through the lens of the present.

For the conscientious PMP®, closing out a project is important. Signing off on the work done and leaving behind a complete set of project documents shows that a professional job has been done. But the really smart PMP® will study the records of previous projects and learn from the hard knocks of others.

 For more information on project closure, please consider one of our project management training courses. We hold our project management certification courses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by contacting us.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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