Tag Archives: peer assists

Lessons Learned – notes from an APM web briefing

By Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell, RiverRhee Consulting

(Preview of a blog to appear on the APM website)

A recent discussion thread on the APM (Association for Project Management) website focussed on the potential value of Lessons Learned and the failure modes that generally occur.  We have edited the points made in the discussion thread into an APM Web Briefing.

This blog summarises the discussion from the briefing, and is supplemented by some of the authors’ own reflections.

Lessons Learned can contribute to the success of projects

When used well Lessons Learned can contribute to the overall success of projects by re-using and building on approaches that have worked well and avoiding the repetition of previous mistakes.  Lessons Learned can also represent valuable intellectual property, deepen the relationship between suppliers and customers, and generally provide a competitive advantage.  A disciplined approach to Lessons Learned can make an important difference to cost, quality and time.

Why do Lessons learned not always work?

Some of the failure modes encountered are:

  • Lessons Learned are often not captured well.  There are several different ways in which this could be done more effectively, for instance by capturing Lessons Learned through the life of the project.
  • Lessons Learned need effective methods of communication.  Stakeholders need to be made aware of what’s available and how to access it.  Conversation is the most effective way to share lessons learned. Communities of Practice (e.g. between Project Managers) may help as might encouraging new teams to share with previous ones, and the use of published guides.
  • Adoption of ideas/outcomes from others may be hindered by cultural and behavioural factors. This may be linked to overall organisational culture, and to whether people are encouraged to learn from ‘mistakes’ or ‘failures’ and ‘successes’.  Whilst all individuals should have a responsibility in this area it may help to hold Project Managers accountable for taking a pro-active approach to Lessons Learned.

Overall a mix of process and culture can hinder the benefits that could otherwise be gained from a structured approach to Lessons Learned.

LESSONS LEARNED are a key component of knowledge management

RiverRhee Associates’ experience of Lessons Learned goes a bit further, as they are a key component of Knowledge Management approaches that we teach and facilitate for sharing learning, insights and experience within and between project and operational teams.

As the discussion thread and Web Briefing mention, Lessons Learned can be captured throughout the life of a project (or other kind of team), or at the end.  The Knowledge Management literature1 refers to learning before, during and after.

learning during: after action reviews

Frequent, short, and relatively informal learning reviews during the life of a project or operational team are sometimes known as ‘After Action Reviews’.  First introduced by the US Army, the intent is to capture and review Lessons Learned after any significant event, so that any corrective or supporting action can be implemented immediately.  In a project team, these After Action Reviews could be carried out after a critical activity or at each stage gate.  In an operational team they could occur as part of regular or periodic team meetings. Important ground-rules for these reviews include: everyone being involved, no blame, and ensuring that Lessons Learned are shared with everyone relevant whether inside or outside the team.  A typical structure for After Action Reviews will include: a recap of objectives, what actually happened and how this differed from the intent, what can be learnt from this difference, and who to share the Lessons Learned with.  What can be learnt covers both what contributed to things going well, and the causes for anything not going well.

Learning after: Learning retrospects

A more reflective Learning Retrospect or History takes place at the end of a project or programme.  It will explore the same questions as an After Action Review, but the recap of objectives and what happened will be a broader based exercise.  We’ve facilitated this kind of learning review for a project in a workshop setting, with the originally planned and actual project milestones mapped out and annotated with post-it notes from the team members to indicate what went well and what could have been improved against these milestones. Again this kind of exercise will be most effective where there is involvement of the whole team, including the project sponsor(s), and agreement on what Lessons Learned will be shared with whom, how and when.

Learning before: peer assists

The third type of learning intervention takes place ‘before’ or at the start of a project or operational team.  Also known as ‘Peer Assists’, this involves bringing together the members of the new team, and some or all members of previous teams who have Lessons Learned to share.  In this situation, the new team lays out its draft plans, concerns, ideas and any specific questions for the visiting team.  The visiting team considers and then shares what insights it can bring to the new team.  The new team then uses these insights to revise its plans and also as input for its risk analysis.

How to be more successful with LESSONS LEARNED

As noted in the Web Briefing, the successful adoption of some or all of these 3 approaches for learning before, during and after will depend on the rigour with which teams and organisations implement the processes, and the nature of the supporting culture and behaviours.  Incorporation of the learning processes into project methodology, facilitation through PMOs or other central groups, and role modelling by sponsors and management teams are examples of how such successful adoption can be enabled.


1. Chris Collison & Geoff Parcell.  Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations.  Capstone, 2nd Edition, 2004.

Intuition revisited – inter-relationship of intuition and knowledge management (Part 3 of 3 blogs)

There are some interesting inter-relationships between intuition and knowledge management (KM)

This blog follows on from part 2: “Intuition revisited – implications for process improvement and Lean Six Sigma”, and part 1: “Intuition revisited – or how it could be important to a business environment”.  All three blogs are based on Gary Klein’s book “The power of intuition”1

Klein explains that intuition is the result of our experience (Klein refers to ‘meaningful experience’).  It enables us to spot cues, recognize patterns and build mental models of potential outcomes.  It is something that we must continuously foster and maintain.  Klein describes ways that we can foster intuition in ourselves and in others, and ways in which we can integrate it into our way of working. Several of the approaches that he describes echo knowledge management techniques such as ‘learning before’, ‘peer assists’, the use of experts and discussions about ‘tacit’ knowledge.

This blog will explore the inter-relationships between intuition and knowledge management (KM).

Is intuition ‘tacit’ knowledge?

Klein spends some time defending intuition as something very real and tangible. Neither magical nor mystical, it is solidly founded on experience and can be enhanced or diminished dependent on our receptiveness, diligence and the environment in which we operate.  It is the result of our expertise and how we exercise it.  We can also help to cultivate it in others through a combination of written instructions (i.e. ‘explicit’ knowledge) and coaching.

This sounds very much like what we KM practitioners call ‘tacit’ knowledge: the knowledge that is “in people’s heads”.  Klein also draws a version of the data – information – knowledge pyramid.  Only, he adds ‘understanding’ and then several bullet points associated with intuition:

  • recognizing patterns,
  • searching for data,
  • building mental models,
  • seeing the stories (KM practitioners like storytelling as well but as a way to  capture and transfer knowledge),
  • adapting,
  • taking an active stance,

before looping back to data etc.

KM practitioners sometimes add ‘wisdom’ to the top of the data  – information – knowledge pyramid.

Using scenario-based exercises to foster intuition

Klein devotes a lot of his book to ‘Decision Making Exercises’ (DMX for short).  This is in effect an accelerated learning process for developing individual intuition, and relies on defining and working through scenarios.

Training or learning professionals will recognize this case study based approach:

  • There is a narrative description of a scenario that has to be resolved with some contextual background
  • There are some simple rules
  • A visual representation
  • It should be easy to play
  • It is best done as a group, with time pressure
  • There is a facilitator who is knowledgeable about the topic and can either apply additional pressure or keep things light

There are also some significant differences from other case study based exercises:

  • The DMX is best developed by the delegates: typically the delegates will work in more than one group, so that they can play each other’s DMX
  • There is no single correct answer
  • An integral part of the exercise is the follow-up discussion and reflection on what decisions were made, why and how

By mixing people who are expert in a topic with those who are less so, these DMXs could accelerate the development of tacit knowledge and intuition.

‘Pre-mortems’, ‘learning before’ and ‘peer assists’

Klein introduces the idea of ‘pre-mortems’ where a team, having completed its plans for a piece of work – a project – then envisages a scenario where they’ve got to the end of the project to find it has been a spectacular failure.  They then work through why that would have happened, enabling them to identify all the things they should have addressed in an open and constructive way.  Supporters of positive thinking and appreciative enquiry might balk at this approach – and opt instead for a scenario of spectacular success!

Nonetheless, pre-mortems are an approach that practitioners of KM could consider adopting, alongside ‘learning before’ or  ‘peer assists’, which differ from the more inward-looking ‘pre-mortems’ in that visiting teams are consulted to see what the resident team can learn from their previous experience in order to identify and mitigate risks or address issues in their projects and plans.


  1. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, by Gary Klein, Crown Business, 2004. ISBN 978-0385502894
  2. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge management and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.