Tying Lessons Learned to Project Failure

If one of the main benefits of lessons learned discussions is to prevent future project failure, then why not structure your lessons learned around the top 5 causes of project failure? You’d be capturing targeted lessons that could be fed into the Project Management Office and project teams to provide tangible routes for improvement.

According to a survey by PM Solutions, the top 5 causes of troubled projects are: Requirements Resources Schedules Planning Risk. Let’s look more closely at some of the lesson that might result from these areas.

1. Requirements

Unclear or ambiguous requirements Lessons for future projects: finalise requirements in advance or adopt Agile practices that make it possible to manage unclear requirements.

Lack of agreement; contradictory requirements Lessons for future projects: make sure that one person has authority to resolve requirements disputes. Ensure change management processes are in place with someone prioritising changes. Note that personalities and departmental culture combined with a silo mentality might make this problem worse.

Lack of priority Lessons for future projects: ensure project priority overall is known, especially in relation to other projects. While you might not be working on the highest priority projects in the company, you should know where you fit and how that might play out when it comes to negotiating for resources. Prioritise individual requirements on the project in case resource conflicts mean not everything can be achieved and some requirements have to wait for a future phase.

2. Resources

Lack of resources; losing key resources Lessons for future projects: Prepare adequate estimates for the resources required. Schedule people at 80% (or less) not 100% of their time on your project. Manage staff turnover on the project team by planning properly for upcoming vacations and longer absences like maternity leave. Work closely with line managers to watch out for project resources who are likely to leave the company and ensure you have training plans to upskill others if necessary.

Resource conflicts Lessons for future projects: Plan adequately. Work with other project managers to identify where part-time resources may be required on your project and theirs to ensure that you create an overall resource plan at portfolio level (even if in practice that’s just sharing the resource between the two projects).

Poor planning Lessons for future projects: Project team members need adequate notice of tasks and the information and resources required to get the work done. Ensure all of this is provided, along with adequate support and training to provide the skills required to complete the tasks. Involve the team in preparing estimates.

3. Schedules

Unrealistic scheduling Lessons for future projects: There could be lots of lessons here! Plan in contingency time based on the risk profile of your project. Use good change management processes to ensure that any changes are adequately scoped and incorporated including any time changes required. Involve project team members in preparing the estimates and confirming that the plan looks realistic

Overly optimistic scheduling Lessons for future projects: Avoid what Roland Hoffman calls confirmation bias (the risk that you go for estimates that you believe are true even though the evidence points to the contrary) and other decision-making problems by running your schedule past another project manager. Make the most of peer reviews and quality audits offered by your Project Management Office.

4. Planning

Insufficient details or processes Lessons for future projects: Adopt good project management practices and a standard methodology. Work closely with your sponsor or customer representative to get a good understanding of their vision and objectives. If possible, second someone to the project team to provide this business view on an ongoing basis.

Poor estimating Lessons for future projects: Consider other estimating techniques such as three-point estimating. Look at the estimates from other similar projects. Use expert input. Add adequate contingency based on what’s known about the task. Estimate for the resource who is completing the task, not the most efficient and speedy person you know.

5. Risk

Unidentified project risk Lessons for future projects: Uncover as many project risks as possible. Regularly review the risk log. Give everyone on the team the opportunity to raise new risks. Consider positive risk as well as negative risk. Use standard risk identification practices and workshops to identify as many risks as possible.

Inadequate or inaccurate assumptions Lessons for future projects: Review the project assumptions with subject matter experts. Keep an assumptions log and review it regularly; update the assumptions when more details are known as this should be a working document.

Unmanaged project risk Lessons for future projects: Use standard risk management processes and apply mitigation techniques. Keep an action log for each risk. Review risks regularly at team meetings and ensure they are being worked on. Make use of peer reviews and informal audits to hold yourself accountable for risk management. Ensure each risk has an owner.

While lessons learned have a lot to offer when it comes to avoiding the causes of project failure, the downside of this approach is that you have to have a project fail, or not deliver as planned, in order to reap the lessons. One project manager’s disaster is another’s lucky break. If you are the unlucky project manager dealing with a failed project, then take solace from the fact that you are making it easier for your fellow project managers (and yourself) to deal with problem projects in the future.

By Elizabeth Harrin