There are always lessons to be learned

In every project team members gain knowledge that can be used to improve future projects (Birk, Dingsøyr, & Stålhane, 2002). I was involved small eLearning project for a large international company. The goal was to create short eLearning modules on various topics in adult learning. The project was relatively straightforward and fun. I created several modules and things were going very well. I created some job aids for adult learning that were very popular and helpful. I still hand them out in my classes today.

On my last module I was paired with a SME who just didn’t get back to me. He did approve the storyboard I’d created and then he disappeared. I knew the SME and we’d had a good working relationship. I’d send him emails and leave voice messages and he just didn’t respond. The SME provided graphics and a rough idea of what he wanted. I tried to create the eLearning module based on what he’d given me but there were holes in the content and I needed more information. I was supposed to leave the country for 6 weeks for an international project and I wanted to have this last module completed before I left. The SME would not get back to me or schedule a time to meet with me. I had to submit the module to the project manager with the holes. The meeting was scheduled after I left the country. The project manager handled the meeting with the SME and he complained about everything when I wasn’t there to defend myself. He complained about the content when he approved the storyboard. He hated the graphics – the graphics he gave me. He complained about the holes in the content – when he wouldn’t respond to my questions. The project manager was furious and blamed me. I have to admit, it was my fault. If the SME didn’t respond I should have escalated the issue. Of course, who wants to run tattling to a manager? Because I was out of the country for such a long period someone else had to finish my module. I never even saw the completed project. It was a very bad end to what had been a fun and engaging project.

My lessons learned include:

  • Make sure the storyboard is approved. (Mine was approved and I will never continue without approval.)
  • Document communication – track emails and phone calls.
  • Track the number of requests for specific answers or additional information.
  • Escalate the issue when the SME doesn’t respond within a reasonable timeframe.
  • Attend the meeting when your module is reviewed so you can defend your design.
  • Make sure you finish the project you started.

I make sure I follow my list of lessons learned. I don’t want to go through an experience like that again. Lessons learned are vital to improved performance in future projects. “Lessons learned the hard way on past projects are, if nothing else, risks for future projects” (Collier, DeMarco, & Fearey, 1996).


I found out that the SME quit two weeks after my project was reviewed. He went to another company. We found out that there were many projects that he just left hanging. He knew he was leaving so he just didn’t care.


Birk, A., Dingsøyr, T., & Stålhane, T. (2002). Postmortem: Never leave a project without it. IEEE software, (3), 43-45.

Collier, B., DeMarco, T., & Fearey, P. (1996). A defined process for project post mortem review. Software, IEEE, 13(4), 65-72.


6 thoughts on “There are always lessons to be learned

  1. Sometimes the best way to learn how to deal with certain situations is when you go through it yourself. I though you pointed out some great lessons learned! I have had my own lessons learned especially regarding documentation. Whenever I start a new project, I always keep a journal record of my meetings and what was agreed upon as well as email sent requesting information, and what activities are completed on a daily basis. I started doing it so that there would be a record and if questions arose, I could go back and find out what transpired during a particular meeting. I have had to use it even to defend myself when a person on one the project denied that they agreed to something that they say they didn’t. I can show the meeting, the emails that show what was agreed upon. That usually shuts the person up pretty quickly.


  2. Some people like to learn their lessons vicariously, but I believe the best lessons are learned first person. They leave a lasting impression. I agree with you that no one wants to be a tattler, but we must do what best for our project and our reputation. Unfortunately you relied on your previous relationship with this person to your detriment. In your epilogue you mentioned the SME moved on and left projects unfinished. Did the project manager change his opinion of you after that?


  3. This was a good post of a real issue happen in real life.. The SME which was paired with you was very irresponsible. I would think this people would not survived out there as they will be see through each project.


  4. Ouch! There were some painful life lessons in your story, but if you are like me, these are the lessons that we learn the best. I just don’t seem to “get it” as well if it doesn’t hurt some. You gave your list of lessons learned and I am curious if you have ever had a similar experience and had to “tattle” to the manager to get a project accomplished?


  5. Michelle,

    Wow! What an experience! I am sorry you had such a horrible experience with your Subject Matter Expert. It seems like the SME had an idea he would soon be leaving and was heavily involved with other matters rather than the project. His behavior exhibits an apathetic attitude towards his reputation and the work of anyone affiliated with him or the company. He is definitely one of the employees the could be mentioned in this week’s discussion causing re-work, unfortunately in your situation you did not have that opportunity. However, it seems you have learned how to combat this situation should you encounter it again, given your “lessons learned” points. I would certainly recommend keeping all correspondence in the future hard and e –copies for protecting yourself. One question I did have for you is was , given your departure for a project overseas were provided as a co-worker or point of contact for your absence? It may not have been much of a help given the missing content, however, a point of contact would have been able to speak on your behalf and remedy any issues. I hope you have better experiences in the future.


  6. Quite an interesting story Michelle. After reading the epilogue it would seem that you took reasonable steps to bring the SME back into the field. Perhaps the other side of the tunnel relates to the fact that the person in question left the firm. Dropping the ball happens on occasion, owning up to one’s mistakes is one of the truest measures of character.

    We can see you, owning your end of the problem, and the real culprit for the debacle rolling over on a blameless colleague. “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Keep leaning into adversity my friend.


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