Our article published on "projektManagement aktuell" issue 5.2016!!

Failing wisely! Or: of the good to be found in bad things – the “inner game” of Lessons Learned

In this article, we want to talk about a specific aspect in the lessons-learned phases of projects. We provide a possible explanation as to why these phases are unpopular or seen as negative together with a solution that improves the results and preserves a good mood. We pay particular attention to those aspects that have to do with what goes on inside the participants, with their feelings, in addition to their more rational thoughts and assessments.

Lessons Learned at the end of a project:  disempowerment or added value?
Lessons Learned “belong” to a project

At the end of a project (at least with more complex projects), it is common and recognized practice to conduct lessons learned activities. This makes sense, and often more sense than reviewing each individual phase in a current project “post mortem”.
Lessons Learned (LL) meetings collect knowledge concerning problems that have come up during a project. If the process is facilitated well the synergies resulting from the differing perspectives of the participants can provide new knowledge as well as insights that can result in a deeper understanding.
LL meetings often take place in the form of a workshop with part or all of the project team. In addition, external partners and suppliers also often take part. Over a period of several hours or days, the people sit together and look back at the things that did not go well in the project, and examine the reasons for this. The experiences we have drawn on for this article come from various projects concerned with product development.

Lessons Leaned meetings are often not well attended.

In planning various workshops in this area, we have found that the willingness to participate as well as the participation itself is low. It is rare for more than half the participants to show up. It is also rare for the participants to be particularly eager at the start of the meeting. Some participants only show up in order to let off steam.
Even the project manager responsible does not often particularly enjoy these meetings. They often fear that something that comes up in these meetings could be blamed on them and that their role or reputation could be weakened.

Lessons Learned meetings are not a popular part of project management. The participation rate is often low. This is partly because the emotional drivers in the projects are often ignored or dismissed, because the participants are afraid that conflicts that have been settled will flare up again. In contrast, dealing with positive and negative emotions in an open and objective way helps the participants to grow, the knowledge they gain to increase and the lessons learned workshop to be more productive. Being able to see the positive aspects of critical projects, the willingness to learn from mistakes and concentrating on systemic solutions in the work processes can really help produce better lessons learned results.

Emotion in the Lessons Learned Process

Timing and setting of LL

The lessons learned meetings take place at the end of the project and produce one of the last documents in the project process. “The church service is over”- many project team members have moved on to something new. Management interest is often reduced or is now concentrated on the implementation phase (product in the market, ensuring the Ramp-Up, moving into the new premises, dealing with customer returns etc.).

Of course, these meetings also deal with failures, as there are not many projects that fully meet or even can meet the original expectations. The insights, knowledge gained and improvement potential should help future projects, although it is not always easy to see how these apply to new situations and therefore the usefulness is not always easy to see.
At the same time, in every project, we always find that people are afraid of conflict, blaming and finger pointing – nearly every article or blog on this subject refers to the need to reduce or avoid conflict and emotional outbursts.

Emotions – those “evil creatures”?

There is a danger that in the course of the LL meetings feelings get “demonised” - in trying to be objective and factual all the unpleasant things are kept in check. This only functions superficially, however, as there are stressful periods, heated debates, threats and painful although necessary decisions even in successful projects, and these leave emotional traces behind. The feelings aroused by these memories, at least according to some opinions, should not be brought up again.
In fact, the lessons learned process is comparable to getting a test handed back at school: “you will never write this again!” - but you remember the mark you were given. Maybe the memory of this event (if we suppose that the mark was not very good) leads to a possible solution. How did you feel as you were given this mark? Anger (at yourself, because all your preparation was obviously not enough, or you made some “stupid” mistakes), maybe a student is ashamed? Maybe fear was a factor? (How will your parents react?). The book of memories opens. These are very basic feelings, but not superficial ones. We are not concerned here “only” with a student´s emotions but with complex processes with budgets that go into the millions and dozens or even hundreds of participants. There were various roles and their effects, doubts (whether everything would succeed), ambivalence and ambiguity. (What did this clause in the contract or this requirement really mean?).
It could also be that some of the participants feel helpless or powerless. In the minutes of these meetings there will be many references to “wrong decisions made by senior management”  “budgets being approved too late in the process” or “not enough capacity” (compared to our requirements), or remarks such as “the team needed more empowerment”. “The good people” were in the team and “prevented an even greater catastrophe” - the “bad people” are the others, outside the team. This form of conflict and stress resolution can possibly help the rising feelings of insufficiency but it does not promote change. None of the participants will change their behaviour in the future.
In addition, the question remains as to whether the commitment shown in this meeting is useful and whether it will be used. (Who will read these minutes in the future and learn from them? - see above).
Disappointments also happen on a regular basis: if the project is not so successful then the bonus payments that were hoped for will not materialise, praise is only given in a half-hearted way, or the “wrong” people are praised. Even with successful projects, we often hear that “considering the time and trouble that was invested the project was not worth it”. In addition, as an explanation: we are not referring to the ungrateful or greedy but rather to cautious realists, enthusiastic, productive and very loyal employees.
All these things come up again in the Lessons Learned meetings, because the team analyses the project step by step. The participants need a very thick skin or to have had very positive experiences with LL-processes in order not to go through these various emotions again. Is it enough, therefore, or rather: is it better to negate all these emotions, to exclude them, or, even better, to appeal to reason and objectivity?

Three thoughts on how to improve this situation

You will have suspected this: no. We do not believe this, in fact, the opposite is true - feelings need to be integrated, to be brought into the light and worked on! Repressed feelings have an effect, and this effect can be unpredictable.
We have found three ways of dealing helpfully with this situation (there are certain to be others as well).

1. “Systemising” the causes of mistakes
Every form of root cause analysis (e.g. when investigating near misses in air traffic) concentrates heavily and exclusively on the processes, systems and procedures for most of the time, and only takes account of the factor “human error” late in the process if at all. How can it be that the cause of the issue was not discovered earlier and dealt with - before the problem occurred?

2. Rewarding the participants
This heading is perhaps misleading: we are not concerned with rewarding the participants of the LL-process, but rather rewarding people for reporting on past mistakes. Does this sound strange for you? To say to someone “now you have learned something!” - After he has touched the hot plate of the cooker? Let us discuss this now. Dear reader - please take this to heart: value your mistakes. Moreover, enjoy making them instead of rewarding people for the lies they tell trying to hide these mistakes for as long as they can.

3. Exonerating the participants
Looking for systemic causes (see above) is one good way to exonerate the participants. “Allowing all the emotions to come out” can also bring relief, as it is seldom pleasant to repress these emotions or only to discuss them with colleagues in a dark corner somewhere.
You don´t believe this? Try sitting at a bar in a business hotel somewhere in central Europe. This is all very human activity, but not conducive to a successful Lessons Learned.

How exactly should we do this?

When we next go into a lessons learned workshop there will be many things to prepare that are not discussed here. However it is also important, as already emphasised, to use the earliest opportunity to speak about feelings:

  • What was frustrating or particularly uplifting?
  • What caused the most effort and why?
  • When did I have so many doubts that I wanted to escape or perhaps even resign?
  • At which point did I hope for a miracle?
  • What kinds of anger or annoyance did I feel most? And were they may be helpful?
  • Which conflicts, that were not - for various reasons - made public, influenced the project?
  • When were we happy about something and what was it about?

If these questions are not asked and answered properly there is a growing danger of conflict resolution in the group - “the others are always to blame”. This leads to passivity and even destructiveness in the team.
We repeat - you can ask whether it is not too dangerous to speak about everything and make it all public. The danger is there. However, it is probably the beginning of a very open and empathetic meeting with no taboos. The journey is its own reward!
Doesn´t it make sense to welcome these feelings and invite people to express them? Because they are perfectly normal although seldom expressed or exchanged with others?
We like to have the participants take part in an exercise, which shows that mistakes don´t only have one meaning - but are rather always there. We ask the participants to name the “impossible” mistakes that they can remember, and we happily write them all down: orbital gliders crashing, leaving €75,000 cash in a taxi, actors coming to rehearsal without their script, orchestral musicians arriving for a concert without their instruments - everyone has an idea! Alternatively, we show a couple of videos, which YouTube is full of: “flops, failures and fumbles”.
Freed up by this we then show the participants the page from illustration 1, get them to turn it over after 5 seconds, and ask them who has spotted the mistake. Everyone else gets a second and maybe a third chance. Then we explain it.
Now we need to explain where the project was successful. Every project shows some results. New technologies or techniques have been integrated, customers may have added their expectations (design thinking), improved testing has been used, user interfaces have been reviewed and improved - the participants list these new assets. Even a project seen as a dismal failure contains a wealth of physical and intellectual values. In addition to the question “what went well in our project?” the additional questions “what have we created?” and  “what can we pass on to future projects? “ are firstly important , secondly , as we understand the LL process, should always be answered positively, and thirdly they are uplifting.
Finally, two steps can remove the taboos from negative emotions and help to integrate them into a positive outcome:

  1. Introduce different “levels” of mistakes - and then delete one or more of them
  2. Change the culture of how mistakes are handled

These levels of mistakes can be meaningful:

  • individual
  • process
  • systemic
  • organisational


Don´t use these as a hierarchy of mistakes. The term “mistake category” may be more helpful.

The fourth and last mentioned level describes all the “management should have….” mistakes: referring to bad decisions taken by senior management, things that were not done or wrongly interpreted. These are things that suddenly descend on the project team like a rain shower or Christmas: things they cannot help and that cannot be helped. Sometimes project teams tend to push responsibility upstairs (wishful thinking). Sometimes this is even right, so it can be justified to point this out in the LL-report or the database.
Systemic mistakes are, for example, skills that are missing or underdeveloped and thus not available when they are needed.
Process mistakes occur when the processes or their control functions do not work as agreed.
And individual mistakes are…. forget it! It may be a good thing to explicitly exclude these, because what do you want to do with them? Train everyone so that these mistakes are not repeated? Give a written warning to one person or even fire him (and thus intimidate the others?). Write another policy?
The one thing left is the delight in making mistakes. Do we really mean this? If you want a “learning organisation”, “life-long learning”, “continuous improvement” or “zero mistakes” then you will have to embrace a delight in making mistakes. Whether we are talking about driving a car, playing tennis, building a house, SAP, CAD or leadership - most things are learned by trial and error.
We should reward those people in the workshop that can come up with the best and most promising improvement potentials! We should protect them, clearly and explicitly, so that they do this. Or should we leave them with the reputation of fouling their own nests?
We must go beyond embarrassment, anger and sadness….. We are concerned with the enjoyment of learning from experience. We will only be able to generate the full value of lessons-learned meeting when we critically reflect on all objective and subjective aspects of a process and understand, integrate and celebrate them as core elements of an organisational culture.


  1. Mathias Lohmer und Heidi Möller, Psychoanalyse in Organisationen: Einführung in die psychodynamische Organisationsberatung,
  2. Burkard Sievers, Psychodynamik von Organisationen
  3. Edgar H. Schein und Isabella Bruckmaier, Prozessberatung für die Organisation der Zukunft
  4. John A. Estrella, Lessons Learned in Project Management
  5. Nick Milton, The Lessons Learned Handbook: Practical Approaches to Learning from Experience
  6. Willis H. Thomas, The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned, Second Edition
  7. Terry Williams, Post-Project Reviews to Gain Effective Lessons Learned
  8. Increase your return on failure, Harvard Business Review May 2016


Uli Harnacke is an engraver, and engineer, an organisational psychologist and certified business coach. He is self-employed since 1993 and manages his own consultancy as well as teamPRO3, which runs lessons-learned workshops.

Bernd Eisenbarth is a qualified in automation engineering and manages the global project organisation at Roche Diabetes Care GmbH. He has been working in project management for medical diagnostic devices for the last 33 years.

Henrik Meyer is a qualified social education worker, a certified supervisor and business coach, and has spent many years working in quality management. He has worked in management positions in health and social management since 1996 and as managing director since 2012.


Uli Harnacke, teamPRO3, Wallstrasse 24, 35792 Löhnberg. Tel. 0172-9103923. Email: uli@teampro3.eu