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Why a lessons learnt log improves Project Management performance (and, what we can learn from HS2’s latest budget estimate!)

What we can learn from HS2’s latest budget estimate? It certainly proves that a 'lessons learnt' log can always improve project performance. In this blog, our in-house PMO expert David Walton, explains how.
I think we have all seen the surveys by various august bodies informing us that the rate of project failure is high.

Recently, Gartner studies suggested that 75% of all US IT projects are considered to be failures by those responsible for initiating them.

These failure rates do not seem to improve. When I started out in the project management profession – if you can call it that – the failure rates reported by similar surveys were about the same.

So, despite the advent of agile, new tools and improved project management education, our project delivery performance is stubbornly low. I hate to think of the wasted economic output this represents.

Failure could of course mean many things; it could be exceeding budget by a certain amount or it could mean failure to deliver the benefits or a myriad of other measures.

At the time of writing the HS2 UK high speed train line has increased its budget from about £30 billion to over £100 billion.

It is too early to say whether this project is a failure or will be a success but the omens do not look good; a project that is predicting a 300% budget overrun is almost certainly going to be perceived as a failure regardless of the actual train line delivery.

There have been many strategies to improve project performance including new methodologies, new tools, training programmes, etc. The evidence suggests that maybe we need to adopt a different approach.

Recently, a number of our clients have asked for our PPM software, PM3, to include a lessons learnt log. I and my colleagues at Bestoutcome were sceptical at first.

Would project managers really bother to try and learn lessons from projects or would they just rush headlong into project delivery?

However, I do think a sea change is happening in the project management community.

Project Managers are being encouraged to learn lessons from previous projects so they can benefit from similar projects’ experience. I remember when HS2, increased its budget from £30 billion to over £50 billion.

At about this time a talk show host at LBC, Nick Ferrari, offered to pay off all his listeners’ mortgages – and he has millions of listeners – if HS2 came in within the £50 billion budget.

You may have thought that it was a bold and rash challenge at the time but maybe he was just using his experience of seeing other large Government projects spiral their budgets out of control.

Nick was effectively, looking at the lessons learnt from previous Government initiatives and thought HS2 would be no different. Judging by today’s news of the budget increasing to over £100 billion, it seems Nick Ferrari’s bet is safe.

Maybe, HS2 and all other projects should look at the lessons from projects that were similar and learn those lessons to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated.

So rather than shiny new methods and approaches in the project management world, we should look to a simpler and more prosaic approach by learning lessons from other projects. In HS2’s case it may have resulted in the original budget being more realistic.

In PM3 we have just introduced our lessons learnt log where each project can capture lessons and their associated recommendations.

Each lesson can be categorised using hashtags for easy searching. Each new project can search for a similar project or a hashtag that is relevant. Once the relevant lesson is located the project manager can import the lesson into his or her project.

Having seen this functionality in practice, I am now a fully-fledged convert to the ‘lessons learnt log’.

Reviewing lessons learnt from other projects could have a significant effect on the success of projects and we may finally see those project failure rates come down.

Who knows what would have happened to HS2 if the project directors had reviewed lessons from previous large infrastructure projects.

The original estimated costs may have been more realistic resulting in either no HS2 or a less ambitious project. So, before you rush headlong into the next project, take time to review lessons learnt from similar projects and your own project may be more successful as a result.

About the author

The author - David Walton

David Walton - I am David Walton, Programme, Project and Portfolio Management specialist and director of Bestoutcome here in the UK. We make the PMO tools PM3, PM3time and PM3NHS, the only PMO tools designed by practitioners for practitioners.

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