Lessons Learned?  I Sure Hope So

Gas Lines – 1970s – Library of Congress Collection

Project Managers are soothsayers.  We are prognosticators.  We look to the future.  We predict cost.  We predict timing.  We predict outcomes. 

As such, we need to be students of history.  We need to learn from the past and ensure that we are capable of leveraging past success and overcoming past failure. 

Consider the following statements from a variety of news sources:

“The Fed let interest rates go higher and higher as the summer unfolded – in effect, using the nation’s inflationary expectations to defeat inflationary expectations. And the tactic worked…People stopped looking at forecasts of higher inflation and started looking at reality.”  – New York Times

“One of the most important challenges facing business is to come to grips with the implications of life in an environment in which annual inflation of 6% or more is conceivable–an environment in which costs double every 12 years, and triple every 19.”  Securities Exchange Commission

“A commodity price explosion was due… which was exactly when it did take place. The Western world has now entered the end of its growth period for this cycle and is entering a roughly 25-year period of economic decline.  It will take another 26 years to recover.”  Mother Earth News

What makes these quotes remarkable is that they are from the mid-1970s and early 1980s.  The last one refers to something called the Kondratieff Wave, which says there’s a 54-year economic cycle last peaked in about 1970 and should have peaked again…about now.  The peaks are followed by intense recessionary cycles and inflation.  Lessons learned?  This cycle is predictable and has been since the founding of the United States.  Higher prices.  Tighter money.  Project suspensions.  Declining markets.

If you knew that gas prices would nearly double again, would you handle your project planning differently?  I’d like to believe you would.  If you knew that management would cut back your available resources and decrease material supplies, would you change your approach?  If you suspected that you were about resort to alternative sources of supply and timing, would you alter your management?

We need to take a more global approach to management of our local projects.  We need to have clarity.  We need to leverage lessons learned.

One of the interesting things about the Kondratieff Wave is that it involves a different generation of pundits, managers, directors, politicians and project managers every time around.  I was still in high school at the peak of the last wave, and I watched the Carter era, inflation, gas lines, and tight money for the early part of my professional career.  Here we are, a half-century later, and I’m getting that déjà vu feeling all over again. 

What Can or Should We Do About It?

In order to learn from history, we first have to know history. 

When working as a proposal manager, when I first got the job, I asked my predecessor, Which of these files are the proposals that were successful? 

I really don’t know.  We don’t sort them that way.  He shrugged.

I had to go back and review files and re-examine which proposals were successful.  It took time to build the historic data I needed to know what sold our clients (and what didn’t).  But it was essential.  It’s all about lessons learned.  It’s about reviewing history and constructing a history where little or no history exists. 

Once we have the historic data, we need to review it in today’s context.  When I got my driver’s license, gasoline was 29 cents a gallon.  By the end of the Carter inflation era, it was a dollar higher.  If I were running projects at the time, that would have been a very serious consideration in planning team travel and predicting overall project cost.  In 2018, the average gas price was $2.85.  Today it’s over $4.30.  That should have been a huge lesson learned. 

Welcome to the late 1970s – U.S. Library of Congress Collection

The same applies on market goods.  It applies on public and team member attitudes.  It provides a sense of how our clients are going to react to many of the actions we take.  If the Carter era serves as a model, we can also anticipate heightened terrorist activity, increased government intervention in our day-to-day activities, and changes in the “rules of the road” with new regulations and controls. 

Embedding lessons learned in our plans means that we will have a clearer understanding of why projects are faring well or poorly.  Finding ways to leverage lessons learned makes us appear more profoundly respectful of our own collective pasts.  Being prepared as the next 54-year cycle takes full hold puts us in a position to plot out the remainder of our careers with a higher degree of confidence (and the sense that we know something others may not). 


Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP is a lecturer, author and all-around fun guy (and a heck of a pundit with an elephantine memory).  He welcomes your comments and insights at carl@carlpritchard.com