Expert Insights

Project Finger-Printing – How to avoid organisational amnesia

Lessons learned are important for continuous improvement and future success. While many are happy to discuss what went right on a project, exploring what went wrong can be easier said than done. Finance executive and change manager Siva Shankar explains a system he calls ‘project finger-printing’ which provides a mechanism for people to share valuable information on factors that drove success and failure.

Learning from mistakes

We learn from our mistakes, or rather we should. While many businesses focus on what went well when a project, investment, acquisition or divestment is completed, some of our best learning comes from understanding aspects that didn’t go well.

It’s human behaviour to underplay mistakes rather than openly harvest valuable insights from them

“It’s human behaviour to underplay mistakes rather than openly harvest valuable insights from them,” says Siva. “Unfortunately that means opportunity is missed to systematically share knowledge of what led to those mistakes, and to significantly reduce the risk of similar mistakes being reinvented elsewhere in the organisation. The problem is it can be difficult to openly capture what went wrong, what could have been anticipated, and what could have been done differently, without it being misinterpreted as finger-pointing.”

Siva began giving thought to this problem around 15 years ago while working in the Asia Pacific region. He observed mistakes being ‘reinvented’ on projects in different countries. These could have been avoided if people assigned to lead projects could have discretely spoken with people who had led similar projects elsewhere in the region. The question was: how does someone assigned to a project know, who, from the thousands of people in an organisation, has prior experience on similar projects?


He began to keep a list of ongoing projects (operational, strategic, acquisitions, divestments etc) and associated each project with its own uniquely identifiable ‘finger-print’ including project type, product type, project size, geographical region and three to five specific project complexities. While being careful not to indicate on the list whether the project was a conventional ‘success’, he added to the finger-print the names of two or three key individuals associated with each project.

Whenever new projects were instigated, he would look at the ‘finger-print’ of the new project, search his database for similar historical projects, and identify the names of key people associated with those projects. He would then provide these names to the leaders of the new project and suggest to them that they might consider having an offline chat with “predecessors who have trodden a similar path”.

“This encouraged consultancy and mentorship where, in a one-on-one conversation, people were open to sharing what went right and wrong,” he says. As he continued to use his growing database to broker these knowledge-sharing conversations, he observed a significant reduction in reinvention of mistakes across the region.

“Over time, I started sharing the concept of ‘project finger-printing without finger-pointing’, and found that in light of the visible benefits from the finger-prints being used to connect people to share critical knowledge in a ‘safe’ environment, people were happy to actively support it,” he adds. He then made the database more widely accessible. From there it was only a matter of time before the database had grown to an extent where there now were clusters of projects with similar finger-prints. This now made it possible, without attribution to a specific project, to add key learnings from successes / mistakes to these clusters of projects. This also meant that even though key people inevitably moved on, their insights were documented and retained.

‘Increases our collective memory’

Siva has continued to implement the finger-printing concept wherever he’s worked, while adapting it to blend in with cultural nuances. “It improves the quality of thinking that goes into planning a new project and it improves risk management,” he says. “One person described it to me as something that ‘increases our collective memory’.

“The reason project finger-printing works is because it doesn’t threaten anyone and provides a mechanism to discretely connect people with those who have trodden a similar path. And on a practical level, it doesn’t need an expensive new system. It can be introduced incrementally, and it builds into something that is not only a useful mechanism for transmitting knowledge around a business, but also has positive cultural implications.”

Finger-printing allows organisations to:

  • Quickly know who to consult to gain insights on similar past projects, before embarking on a new project
  • Develops a more open culture of sharing knowledge on past successes and mistakes through a ‘safe’ mechanism

Siva Shankar

Siva Shankar’s expertise is in finance, strategy, M&A and change management. He has worked around the world for major PLCs in building materials, real estate and construction.

Williams Bain

Williams Bain is an exclusive hybrid interim and change management provider. We’re trusted by some of the UK’s largest organisations to support the implementation of complex strategies that accelerate results and lead to definitive, positive and measurable change.