Increasing Project Knowledge Retention and Transfer of Best Practices

Individuals within an organization move from one project to another, repeating the same mistakes, managing through similar crises, despairing over under-performing team members, etc. And they repeat this cycle over and over again. The knowledge from one project is not formerly captured. And others at best, informally learn about what made one project successful and another unsuccessful. The research of Project Management Offices conducted by Business Improvement Architects of over 750 global organizations confirms this finding. This comprehensive study indicated that while two-thirds of Project Management Office respondents are responsible for archiving documentation, it is surprising at how few organizations actually capture and retain project knowledge.

Archiving documentation at the completion of a project is the primary method of knowledge retention and transfer. There is an opportunity for more active approaches to ensure knowledge transfer such as Knowledge Management Systems and Knowledge Sharing Sessions.

Knowledge Retention

The Project Management Office research found that organizations find value in recording and documenting “Lessons Learned” on projects as a means of passing along the things that worked or did not work on a project. This process begins with the capturing of “Lessons Learned” at the close of each project and then retaining this information in a database. Two methods commonly used to retain the information and share it with future project teams include storage in an intranet site or in shared network drives within the organization’s database that may be accessed via a Windows™ search.

Knowledge retention is a major benefit to organizations because it contributes to continuous learning and avoidance of repeated mistakes. In order to retain project knowledge that can be passed on as “Lessons Learned” for future project teams, the Project Management Offices must hold a formal “Project Close-out Meeting” as soon as possible after a project is completed because, at this point, the knowledge about the management of the entire project is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

The outcome of the project close out meeting will be the creation of a formal document of “Lessons Learned” for archiving, to be carried to future projects, their managers and their teams.

When should the Close-out Meeting happen?

The Project Close-out Meeting is held as a last activity in the Project Plan. This task should have been included in the Project Management deliverable of the project plan. Its purpose is:

  • To review what happened in the project
  • To review what the team and the organization can learn from what happened

The Project Close-out Meeting should be held as soon as possible after the project is completed, when the knowledge about the management of the entire the project is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Purpose of the Close-out Meeting

It is important that everyone understand that this is not a “blame” session. It is intended to discover what future project teams can learn from this project that will make their projects better.

Who should attend the Close-out Meeting?

The project manager and entire project team should attend the Close-out Meeting. It may also be useful to invite resources or stakeholders who would like to contribute to the retention of knowledge about the management of this project. In some situations, it can be advantageous to have an outside facilitator lead the meeting. This helps to ensure that the discussions are objective and that everyone’s input is captured.

What happens at the Close-out Meeting?

The facilitator of the meeting (the project manager or outside facilitator or Project Management Office) introduces the session and its purpose. A series of open-ended questions will be used to ensure that the discussion is focused. A list of suggested questions is on the next page. At the end of the meeting, the results of the discussions will be summarized into a project close report. This close-out report will include the project’s successes, failures, lessons learned, recommendations for future projects and other items that future project teams can learn and benefit from.

What happens after the Close-out Meeting?

The project manager reviews the Project Close Report and distributes it to the project team, project sponsor, other attendees at the project close-out meeting and anyone who gave input to the close-out discussion. The report is archived with the other project documentation. In this way, project knowledge is retained.

Close-out Meeting Questions

Use the following questions to help facilitate the Close-out meeting. The answers will help in the development of your Close-Out Report:

  1. What were the major project successes?
  2. What were the major project challenges?
  3. What could have been done to have increased the successes and decreased the number of challenges/difficulties on the project?
  4. Can this learning be passed to other projects? If so, what would they be?
  5. What were the actual project end deliverables vs. the original?
  6. How close to the scheduled completion was the project?
  7. What was learned about the scheduling of activities and tasks that will help future projects?
  8. What project benefits were derived that were not originally identified?
  9. What was learned about the scheduling of time that will help future projects?
  10. What was learned about the scheduling of resources that will help future projects?
  11. How close to budget was the final project cost?
  12. What did the project team learn about budgeting that will help them on future projects?
  13. Were the right team members included in the project?
  14. Were the team roles and responsibilities clear?
  15. To what extent did the stakeholder positively or negatively impact the project?
  16. Upon completion, did the project output meet stakeholder requirements, without additional work?
  17. If additional work was required, why was it necessary?
  18. How was change managed through the project?
  19. What risks occurred on the project that were not anticipated?
  20. What could have been done to anticipate these risks?
  21. What was learned about risk management that will help future projects?
  22. To what extent did you manage the project by following the established quality criteria?

Project Documentation to Archive

There are some key project documents that should be retained so that the lessons learned can be easily passed to future projects. This documentation includes:

  • Project Scope Statement
  • Project Team Structure
  • Project Plan (originally baselined and all subsequent re-baselined plans)
  • Issue Management Logs
  • Change Requests and Change Logs
  • Risk Management Report
  • Budget (originally vs. actual)
  • Close-out Project Evaluation
  • Close-out Project Team Evaluation
  • Final Reports and/or Recommendations

Transfer of Best Practices

An important responsibility for the Project Management Office is to capture and retain a database of “Lessons Learned” from all projects for future reference. This is especially true for new Project Management Offices. To accomplish this, bring project managers together to discuss projects that they have been undertaken over the last 6-12 months. Hold discussions about the lessons they want to pass on to other projects; what should be repeated and what should be avoided as well as any other suggestions for other project teams.

There are basically two ways of accessing “Lessons Learned and it is either through intranet storage of the information that allows project managers to search the files stored in the organization’s intranet data bank or via shared network drives that may be accessed through a Windows™ search.

Developing an Intranet storage system requires that the Project Management Office set up keywords in the project’s “Lessons Learned” document so that the search tools can return a percentage match, with the higher percentage match documents most likely containing the information that is most relevant to the project manager’s search. Many of these tools will even search inside word processor documents so the Project Management Office may not even need to convert project lesson learned documents to an HTML format.

Almost every organization has shared network drives that are used to keep files so that any number of employees, within the organization, can easily access the documents. One approach the Project Management Office may take is to store all “Lessons Learned” documents in a single folder or subfolders within one folder. Then, using the advanced features of the search tool built into the Windows™ operating system, a project manager can search that directory folder for specific terms and it will return a list of all of the documents that contain those terms. It does not rank the documents; it just selects those that contain the requested phrase. While this method involves more work to sift through the documents, it is usually easier to start using because it rarely involves the system support staff to set-it up.


The Project Management Office’s goal is to help their organization manage projects in today’s complex, global marketplace. Managing projects across departments, locations and countries is best managed when project knowledge is passed from one project to the next. This reduces repeated, costly mistakes. The Project Management Office holds the responsibility for ensuring consistency in the management of all elements of all projects. The successful management of these projects has a direct impact on the organization, its customers and its resources. The transfer of best practices from one project to the next helps to ensure this positive impact is realized.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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