Monday, December 7, 2015

Learning Lessons from Lessons Learned

They go by many names including: Lessons Learned Sessions, After Action Reviews, Post-mortems, Post Project Evaluation, Learn and Grow, and Project Retrospective.  These sessions are the time when the project leader and project team look back over the project, or at least a portion of it, and attempt to learn from their experiences.  It is a practice that is called for in many project management methodologies, yet often neglected.  

When I ask people why they haven’t done one, I get many different reasons.  “Everyone is busy on other projects now.” ‘Why bother, we won’t change anything.” “Most of the team at the end of the project is different from the beginning team.  They didn’t participate in many of the decisions.”   In fact, often these are backwards looking, blame-focused sessions.  When that occurs, it is an indicator that the organization and project teams don’t understand how to use these sessions.

I would like to discuss five elements of effective reviews.  These are the purpose, the timing, the participants, the questions asked, and the follow-up.


The purpose of these sessions is continuous improvement.  These are not meant to be final project reports or a history of what happened.  They are intended to improve the planning and execution of the current and future projects.  One of the implications of this purpose is that anything can be discussed.  There are no “sacred cows.”  Don’t avoid subjects because it many hurt someone’s feelings or it makes them uncomfortable.  The goal is to improve performance.  If we ignore some aspect of performance, it will not improve. 


A mistake often made when doing project reviews is that the review occurs long after the project is over and the review then considers the entire project.  A much better approach is to do a quick review after each phase or milestone with the project team so that they can immediately take action to improve the remainder of the project.  This type of review doesn’t need to be an all-day offsite meeting with formal facilitators and reports.  It can be a pizza lunch with post-it notes on a white board.

Let’s consider for a moment one of the best models of how to conduct one of these sessions, and that is the US Army’s After Action Review format.  First, note that it is not an “After War Review” with Monday morning quarterbacks looking back over years of history and trying to find the big lessons of the war.  It is a review that is immediately conducted following an action or event.  Everyone from the team is still there.  The events are fresh in everyone’s mind, and because it is focused on what the team just did; many of the recommendations are immediately actionable by the team.


This gets us to the participants in the review.  I recommend that it is the team, the whole team, and nothing but the team.  Well, you may want to have someone from the PMO or another project leader to help take notes and facilitate.  This is especially true if there were some leadership problems and the team might be uncomfortable discussing this in a meeting being run by the project leader.  There is no need for senior management in this meeting.  Their presence is likely to repress the conversation.  It is appropriate for the project leader to provide a summary of the results to senior management and the PMO.  But the discussion is likely to be much more open and honest if the meeting is just the team members.


The agenda for the meeting is very simple.  What is going right and what is going wrong.  The team may want to vent a little if there are problems or celebrate if things are going well.  Let them release a little emotion, but then focus them on these questions:
  • What is going well that we want to continue?
  • What is not going well that we need to change?
  • What should we do differently as part of the change?
  • What recommendations do you want to make to the organization to pass onto other teams?


Well, as you can see from the questions, we anticipate that we will want to make changes.  It is possible that the team may say that everything is going great and nothing should change.  When that is the case, the team should be making a recommendation to the organization so other teams can copy their result.  However, most of the time there will be some changes.  By conducting the review with the current project team, they can also decide what they will change – starting tomorrow.  I like to get very specific when I discuss the changes.  I go around the room and ask each person what they personally will be doing differently.  Doing this in the room among the team members will improve personal accountability among the team members.

Turning these reviews into forward looking change events instead of backward looking blame events will make them productive.  They really will drive continuous improvement.  

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