You can only learn from your mistakes if you know what they are

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Matthew Gordon
Matthew Gordon - March 18, 2022

I know a lot of these philosophy posts seem like I'm just telling you the obvious, but hear me out: does your team have a simple, consistent, effective way of looking at completed projects and learning from the mistakes that you use after every project completes? In my experience it's rare, even though everybody knows you can only learn from your mistakes if you know what they are.

Most teams I've seen don't have any process for examining past projects. If they do, it's very informal. If it's formal, there's no specific outcome or report that's required. If there is, people don't read it and learn valuable lessons. If the team actually reads it and learns, there's no process for integrating what you've learned to avoid repeating your mistakes in the future.

If everybody knows better, why is it so rare?

No mystery here: it's expensive and boring to learn from your mistakes unless you have great tools that do most of the work for you. Ideally, you'd want to be able to answer questions like

  • Are there any tasks that took more time than expected?
    • How much more time?
  • Did you cut scope to hit deadline?
    • What, specifically, did you cut?
    • Had you already spent time on it when you cut it?
    • Is it cut for good, or did it just get moved further out on the schedule?
    • Did cutting that scope actually move up the delivery like you hoped?
  • Did scope increase over the course of the project?
    • What, specifically, was added?
    • How much later was the project delivered because of scope increase?
  • Was the project delivered late?
    • If it was late
      • What specific changes and errors caused it to be late?
      • What can you do in the future to avoid those problems?
    • If was on time or early
      • Is the current delivery date the original delivery date?
  • Did your team do any crunch time on this project?
    • If so, did crunching actually help you deliver on time?

To answer those questions with meaningful detail, you'll at least need to have

  • the original scope
  • the original estimates for each task
  • the original delivery date
  • a list of all the scope changes that occurred throughout the project
  • a list of all estimate changes that occurred throughout the project
  • a list of all the delivery date changes
  • a list of the time spent on each task and when that time was spent

That's not a small list. If you're not tracking all of those from the start of the project, it's a hopeless amount of work to accurately gather all the data. Even if you are tracking most or all of it from the start, the amount of analysis is substantial. If your project management tool doesn't do basically all of that for you, it's probably not happening.

Ok, so my project management tool will do these things?

I'm not aware of any existing project management software that answers these questions. Project management tools are typically focused on the future. Once something is done, it's no longer of interest. I think it's largely a function of other tools being focused on the details instead of the big picture. Burndown's focus on the big picture includes having a good grasp on the past and making it easy to answer all these important questions.

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