To document or not to document project outcomes?

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While the need to document lessons learned on projects is widely regarded as an essential part of the project management process, project management ofice (PMO) executives in Gauteng are divided on whether or not this is just a waste of time.

This emerged at last week’s quarterly PMO Forum in Sandton where the issue was one of three controversial topics that was fiercely debated by delegates.

The PMO Forum is an interest group that falls under the umbrella of Project Management South Africa (PMSA). Sponsored by PPO, it provides an opportunity for PMO executives and leaders to network with peers across industries and share knowledge and experience.

Initially, while a minority of delegates agreed that documenting lessons learned was a waste of time, several of the attendees admitted to having changed their minds by the end of the discussion.

Dalene Grobler, PPM executive consultant at PPO Cape Town who moderated the debate, pointed out that all available evidence clearly indicated that project success rate had remained constant – and largely dismal – over the years. The same problems were constantly being highlighted as contributing to this including lack of sponsorship and clarity on project scope.

“Organisations cannot afford to continue making the same mistakes on the projects. We have to learn from our mistakes and successes: we need to document or share our lessons learned. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That can reduce wastage and costs,” she said.

“At the same time, while documenting lessons learned has become a much more formal and structured management practice, there's very few PMOs that have this critical knowledge base in place. And even if they do, it's not referenced when starting up new projects. Why is that?” she asked.

Grobler suggested that one problem was that people were often extremely reluctant to talk about lessons learned, possibly out of fear of being victimised. Another issue was lack of time: there was simply no time between projects for analysing, discussing and debating lessons learned, with the result that the whole “lessons learned” process had been reduced to a tick-box exercise.

Delegates who supported the motion that documenting lessons learned was a waste of time, also blamed the situation on a rapidly changing world, with lessons learned from past projects often no longer applicable. They also stressed that even if “lessons learned” documentation was kept in some sort of repository, it was not knowledge managed effectively; the lessons themselves were not generic and therefore not transferable to other projects; project managers didn’t have the time to read them; and the information was not reaching the right people.

The counter argument – that documenting lessons learned was important – was supported by the majority of delegates who agreed that this contributed to continuity. However, for the lessons learned to be beneficial to the organisation, they couldn’t just reside in the PMO: they had to be used to influence process and policies and change the way in which the organisation delivered projects. This would contribute to shortening project time and reducing costs.

What was important, the pro-lessons learned delegates stated, was not what was being done but how it was being used throughout the organisation. It had to go beyond being just a “PMO thing”.

“It’s important to communicate and to sharing those lessons learned with the right people. Knowing where the pitfalls of previous projects are can influence how once sets up a project office, knowing what to avoid and ensuring that the right practices and processes are in place,” Grobler concluded. 

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