Project failure: lessons learnt and risk management

Raising the bar

24 November 2016

David Reynolds investigates the links between project failure, lessons learned and risk management

At the launch of Crossrail’s Learning Legacy project in February 2016, the company’s Chief Executive Andrew Wolstenholme said: “Passing on the lessons and good practice that we have learned at Crossrail is an absolutely essential part of raising the bar in the delivery of major projects. With an unprecedented number of infrastructure schemes around the corner, now is the time to start sharing what we have learned so the UK can build on its reputation for delivering safely, on time and on budget.”

Most of us would agree that learning lessons from past projects has many benefits. So why does it often seem difficult to do?

The reasons why projects fail

Projects fail for many reasons, often interlinked. Some of the main ones are as follows.

  • Project initiation and planning: the expression “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is frequently used, but often planning is not given its due attention as we rush into a new project.
  • Governance: there can be a lack of ownership and an assumption that someone else was looking after a task, leading to people claiming it was not their responsibility when things go wrong.
  • People: often, a good plan can be derailed due to personality clashes.
  • Technical: there is a wide variety of potential technical causes for failure, ranging from design and resources to finance and procurement.

Why lessons are not learned

Most projects follow a familiar path where we make assumptions based on our experience. For example, a project team may be assigned to a consecutive roll-out of refurbishments across 10 retail outlets. The element of repetition is used to ensure efficiency, yet time is not taken to review performance on the 1st project, the outcomes from which could inform the subsequent ones. The team therefore proceeds beyond the 1st project, with its members all feeling they are using the correct process. But without peer feedback and a sanity check on why they are doing something, they may be blissfully unaware that they are slightly off track.

Feedback and peer review will help you to correct or improve on your project processes. However, recording knowledge and learning from it requires time and resources, and the commitment of the individual and organisation. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to implementing what is generally regarded as good practice. There are 2 parts to this issue.

Recording knowledge

Many organisations have procedures for recording knowledge and lessons learned, such as regular project reviews and feedback from end-of-project workshops. But these may not be implemented on smaller projects because of a perceived lack of value.

An individual’s willingness to discuss project issues openly is crucial to this process. Unfortunately, there may be resistance because of other work priorities, the impact of admitting a mistake and so on. The behavioural and organisational aspects of discussing problems are therefore important to understand and address.

Using knowledge

Even if knowledge is recorded, there is a risk that it will just get filed. If this knowledge is not used, it will have been a waste of time and resources.

There is lots of guidance, however, to help project managers develop and implement an effective process for recording and using knowledge, including the RICS Lessons learned guidance note. The key is making time to record and use the knowledge gathered, and not charge headlong into a project and just do things as they have been done before.

Future impacts

One of the main reasons that project teams or individuals do not develop is the fear of failure. This creates a risk-averse culture, where people repeat the same processes because “we have always done it that way”.

To have a positive effect on future projects, the process of learning lessons must provide clear outcomes that can be implemented, especially at important project stages. Examples include the earlier engagement of stakeholders to ensure that their expectations are managed, or moving a risk workshop to an earlier point in the process to allow potential problems to be flagged for those who are unfamiliar with a previous project’s issues.

The benefits of learning lessons

Recording and re-using project knowledge has many benefits, including:

  • accumulating soft assets for the organisation;
  • helping intra-organisational training through a living knowledge archive;
  • not repeating mistakes made in the past;
  • improving project planning and delivery;
  • improving the outcomes for projects;
  • reducing risks;
  • not wasting money and instead maximising the benefits of the investment;
  • improving client and stakeholder satisfaction;
  • improving reputations, whether they are those of individuals, the organisation or the industry;
  • developing project management competencies; and
  • increasing expertise as well as professionalism.

Most projects can benefit from recording and re-using project knowledge and lessons learned, such as one-off projects – perhaps the most common situation – as well as phased projects and framework agreements.

Practical advice

The process of reviewing lessons can be incorporated into different project stages. These include the following.

Project inception

At this point, knowledge, experience and lessons learned can be most beneficial to the success of a new project.

Project execution plan

The project manager should establish the process for recording knowledge and lessons learned, such as stage-by-stage or other regular reviews, and documenting the results.

Risk management

This is where learned lessons potentially offer the greatest value in project planning and completion. Project managers should refer to reports on the lessons learned and identify issues relevant to the new project. As a starting point for risk management, brainstorming should involve:

  • identifying the main areas in which previous projects went wrong;
  • identifying where things worked well and could be successfully repeated;
  • keeping the issues anonymous – using generic descriptions and respecting confidentiality; and
  • considering all issues – technical, governance, relationships and people.
Project meetings

The project manager should introduce a monthly item for the meeting agenda to discuss lessons learned, inviting individuals to offer comments or observations from the previous month. Starting this initiative early in a project’s life will help to establish an ethos of open dialogue. This is similar for public-sector gateway and assurance reviews.

Project evaluation at completion

A continuous process for recording knowledge and lessons learned has many benefits during the planning and completion of a project. However, it is likely that this process will often be performed at project completion through a facilitated workshop.

The ‘lessons learned’ workshop

It is useful to start the workshop by setting the scene, describing what the workshop aims to achieve and setting out some rules. An hour is an ideal duration, which is enough time for the participants to focus but not so long that they become entrenched in a topic. An example of how this might be approached is shown in Figure 1.

Lessons learned construction slidesFigure 1. Indicative slides outlining the workshop review process and its underlying principles. Source: RICS Lessons learned guidance note, 1st edition, April 2016

It is crucial to a workshop’s success to use an impartial chair for the meeting, collecting the data and generating the output. They can help you reflect on your own understanding of an issue, which may make it easier to take a step back from the project detail. Inviting others into the process who are not familiar with that detail will bring impartial perspectives and fresh views on what may previously have been considered insurmountable differences. However, a word of warning: conducting ‘lessons learned’ exercises with a client or external consultants present may give rise to claims for negligence or breach of contract.

A group of between 8 and 12 people is ideal for a workshop, and they should comment on the project under the following headings.

  • Communications: this can include the marketing and media teams, public liaison officers and those involved in the project communication process, such as meetings, distribution of actions etc.
  • Planning: a member of the planning team responsible for the overall project timeline, including an understanding of where time was lost or gained due to issues on site or changes of information.
  • Commercial: the project manager and quantity surveyor or commercial manager will be able to offer feedback on the project’s cost and commercial processes.
  • Construction governance: the construction manager and site agent are critical to this process, as is the director responsible for overall progress and ensuring the quality and specification expectations were met.
  • Health and safety: the appointed project coordinator and other safety representatives are key, especially if there were issues related to health and safety.
  • Stakeholder management: this relates to the overall project manager who had responsibility for the stakeholder map as well as key relationships.

Ultimately, the success of any lesson-learning process will be people’s willingness to participate, the desire to learn from previous projects and the use of that knowledge to improve future ones. Achieve this and you will have worked smarter, not just harder.

David Reynolds FRICS is a property and construction consultant and a member of the working group that developed the Lessons learned guidance note.

Further information