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Project Memory

April 15, 2014

In the February 2014 edition of PM World Journal, Lev Virine and his co-authors consider the impact of cognition, memory, and biases on a project manager’s decision making.  The authors state that normal human biases, including over-optimism and blind spots in our memory, can lead to decision-making errors that can impact project outcomes. Memories are tricky things. The accuracy of our memories is impacted by what is happening when we record the information, how we organize and construct the memories, and how we retrieve and recall those memories. We all forget details, and our memories can be distorted by things that happen later. If a project is eventually successful, we might forget some of the negative events that happened earlier, and vice versa.

Viewpoint: This article made me think more about the traditional “lessons learned” exercises that many organizations undertake as a matter of course at the end of a project or a major phase. These exercises are well-intentioned but, in my experience, rarely useful. I recently conducted an informal poll of some of my clients, asking two questions: (1) How often do you conduct a lessons learned exercise at the end of a project, and (2) How often do you refer to lessons learned when you start a new project.  For most of my clients, the answer to the first question was 80-100%. The answer to the second question was – never or almost never.  When I asked why they never consulted lessons learned from earlier projects, most project managers told me that each project was so unique, they didn’t think they were relevant.

Perhaps the same shortcomings in recording, constructing, and retrieving these organizational memories apply.  A period of reflection at the end of a project can be useful for organizing project knowledge and artifacts.  However, in terms of lessons learned (good and bad), it is probably does not promote accuracy.  Many of the project participants have already moved on to the next project – mentally or physically, details are forgotten, and people often don’t want to bring up earlier mistakes.  The best time to record the information is as close as possible to when it’s happening – for example, during weekly project status meetings.  Most lessons learned artifacts are organized with categories of “Things that we did well” and “Things that went wrong”.  Other categories would be useful for organizing the information – such as scope management, end user acceptance testing, or training.  Today’s on-line project management systems provide an ideal opportunity to record this information as the lessons are actually being learned.  During project closure, this information can be organized and interpreted, rather than putting everyone through the exercise of trying to remember what happened.  A different approach to collecting and organizing project memories might improve the quality of the information enough that project managers might actually want to use it to help plan their next project?


Trumper, M., Virine, E. & Virine, L. (2014). Memory and Project Mental Errors. PM World Journal, 3(2).

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