Months of hard work have led to this moment – the successful conclusion of the project.
You give the nod to your team. The project is finally live! It’s time to sit back and bask in your success, right?
That’s only part of the story. By all means, go ahead and celebrate your success with the project team. Before you move on to your next project, take the opportunity to reflect on the experience and find lessons learned. In fact, regularly reviewing performance is a key strategy that the world’s top professionals use to improve their results.
In his TED talk, “How to get better at the things you care about,” Eduardo Briceño explains how the very best performers in the world alternate between two zones of activity.
First, they do their work in the performance zone such as planning a project schedule for a project manager. Second, they spend part of their time in the learning zone where the focus is on experimentation, making occasional mistakes and reflection. Briceño has found this alternating pattern appear across industries: business, management, and entertainment. Even the military practices this discipline with the concept of “after action reviews.” We all know the value of performing in project management – creating plans and putting our plans into action. What about learning time? That’s where lessons learned to play a role.
Most organizations have no structured process to review their work and identify lessons to improve performance. As a result, they waste time and resources by repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Why does this happen? There are three reasons.
You’ve just finished work on a project that has taken up months of your time. You’re delighted to see the project is done and shipped… Then you suddenly remember the lessons learned activity outlined in the PMBOK Guide. It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Friday when you realize that you ought to organize a lesson learned session – maybe Monday would be a better time to hold the meeting.
When Monday arrives, you find a new project assignment waiting for you… The idea to hold a project lessons learned meeting is quickly forgotten.
For the third project in a row, you encounter late delivery problems from your critical vendors. What can be done to keep these issues from occurring over and over again? You decide to organize a lesson learned meeting. There’s just one problem –you’re unclear on the best way to engage the project team.
Therefore, you decide to use an unstructured approach in the meeting. At first, everyone is quiet at the meeting as there’s no guidance in what to say. Before long, the emphasis has shifted to assigning blame. One or two small improvement ideas come to the surface. It’s better than nothing but you had hoped for so much more.
Psychological researchers have found that many people prefer the familiar and the comfortable. Project managers face conflict with this tendency all the time as they work to create unique results on their projects. In the context of lessons learned, the status quo bias manifests discourages project team members in bringing up improvement opportunities. For example, your project team members make a suggestion and then immediately dismiss it by saying, “Ah, but that’s not how this organization works and I don’t even know how to get started with a change like that.”
You are now equipped to overcome the invisible barriers that prevent many project managers from learning and improving with lessons learned. How do you get started? Use the following steps to boost the productivity of your next lessons learned exercise.
Decide in advance on when and where you will hold the lessons learned meeting with your schedule. If you are scheduling it far in advance, you can note “agenda to be finalized later” in the meeting invitation.
Some organizations provide lunch, doughnuts or some other incentive to prompt full and active participation in the lessons learned exercise. Find an incentive that will appeal to the project team based on your experience and expert judgment.
Prior to meeting with the project time, set aside 15 minutes to identify lessons learned for yourself. This activity will prime you on how to reflect on your performance and give you examples to share in the meeting.
Tip: Focus your thinking on areas under your control to influence rather than the changing the entire organization.
Write and distribute a simple one-page agenda for the lessons learned meeting one or two days in advance. This agenda will include items such as ground rules, idea starting questions and lessons learned to follow up.
To start the meeting, take a few minutes to explain the meeting’s ground rules. The purpose of defining lessons learned to improve performance in the future. Second, encourage participants to use facts to illustrate their comments so that everyone can understand the point. Finally, explain that you will seek their assistance in implementing these ideas into the organization.
Resource: Study this resource for additional guidance on establishing effective ground rules for meetings.
If your project team is unsure where to start, use these prompts to start the process. What activities and methods worked best on this project? What is one change we could have made to improve performance? What unexpected problems occurred and how can they be addressed proactively next time?
Tip: Assign the responsibility of documenting lessons learned to another person so that you can focus on facilitating the discussion.
At this stage, you will have a list of lessons learned ideas. To get the best value from the exercise, take the extra mile to translate these ideas into your organization’s processes.
1. Vacations delayed the project by several weeks.
Application: Add a step to the project planning to seek out information on planned vacations and establish a cross-training plan to address that issue.
2. Change request decisions were communicated poorly which led to confusion and frustration.
Application: Revise your change control process and communications to better inform everyone on changes. That may include a weekly change request email newsletter outlining significant changes.
Time to Act:
Lead by example for lessons learned. Reflect on the past two projects you worked on and identify at least one lesson from each project. Use those insights to improve your performance on your next project.