Posted by: projectsinpractice | May 7, 2012

Improving on the Wheel: Lessons Learned

Teresa here.

Reasons abound for skipping the lessons learned part of the project mop-up phase. A colleague of mine always carries out successful projects that are notable for their creative brilliance and a fun spirit of collaboration. In spite of this, she shirks the debriefing process at the end.

“I can’t change the past,” she says. “So why would I want to rehash everything that went wrong?”

As for me, I’m often guilty of shutting the old project down as quickly as possible in order to start a new project right away. Sadly, I also fall prey to just being bone-weary of the old project and not wanting to think about it anymore. It’s far more stimulating to escape the old problems and start fresh with a new project that has no sticky issues (yet!).

Whether you refer to it as lessons learned, debriefing, or post mortem, you and your team use the project review process to determine what went well and should be repeated for the next project. The process also looks at those aspects of the project that can be improved next time.

These areas of improvement can elicit criticism, real or perceived, constructive or not, and that can lead to the source of our dread. After all, you’re asking everyone to articulate specifics about what could have gone smoother or mistakes you and your team made. Even if you did everything perfectly, considering what should be done differently next time forces you all to confront others with supreme diplomacy. It can be an exhausting balancing act.

What made me a true believer was the big potluck party my husband and I used to have each year. We’d have 100+ people over to the house for food, drinks, games, swimming, live music, dancing, and sometimes karaoke. One year a guest offered astrology readings as her contribution. Another year another friend offered helicopter rides with his flight instructor. Because it was an annual shindig, when we started planning, I’d dig out my project plan, notes, and menus from the previous year — essentially my party project notebook. Using the last plan as the basis to start the new party plan kept me from having to rethink everything each year.

However, I also quickly found that there were details that neither my husband nor I could remember a year later. Did we send out the invitations two or three weeks in advance? Did we make one or two pots of chili? Which appetizers were devoured immediately and which ended up as copious leftovers or garbage? How many friends did we draft as “Event Staff,” and what were their jobs?

So doing the “potluck party post mortem,” typically the day or two after the party, soon became part of the fun. We’d list details of what worked, and what we’d do better next year. We never felt regretful or criticized. Instead, we got a kick out of reliving the party details. We felt affirmed about what a great time we all had and how smoothly everything went. We also felt confident that next year, this fabulous party would be, amazingly, even better!

It’s that aspect of continuous improvement that I like so much about the lessons learned process. Not only are you not reinventing the wheel with each new project, you’re actually improving on the wheel. Really, you’re improving on previous improvements to the wheel. Therefore, the wheel becomes more and more advanced in a shorter span of time.

If you’re using another project manager’s project notebook complete with their lessons learned feedback, not only are you improving on that wheel, but you’re getting what amounts to a “Vulcan mind-meld” of project knowledge.

It’s best to collect lessons learned every step throughout the project lifecycle. You can also lead a constructive lessons learned meeting at the end. Then capture this information in a knowledge base or final report. You’ll improve your own projects, enhance your team members’ professional development, and streamline similar projects done by other project managers. Best of all, you’ll capture those essential details, like the best delivery restaurant that kept the team happy on those death-march nights, that no one will otherwise remember a few months later.

Read more about the project review in Chapter 22, “Don’t Forget Lessons Learned,” in Your Project Management Coach.

p.s. I’ll be giving a presentation at the STC Technical Communications Summit in Chicago later this month. My talk, titled “Learning Lessons from a Completed Communications Project,” is scheduled for 4 pm on Tuesday, May 22.

Talk back: What tends to stop you from carrying through with the lessons learned process? What is the most value you’ve found from the process?

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