For the last year, you've been working on a large project, creating training materials to prepare your company's contact-center employees to use their new enterprise software package. Your training materials are not only accurate and instructionally sound; they are attractive and motivating. You've even built in Web 2.0 elements.
You've piloted the materials, gathered feedback from learners, and finalized the content. The training is effective and well received. You and the team are proud of your efforts and are ready - no, eager - to move on to a fresh new project.
But wait. You know how effective your training is, but you haven't considered the effectiveness of the project's people and processes. To do this, you need to gather "lessons learned" from your team and your internal client.
Lessons learned, also called "after action reviews," "sunset reviews," and "post-mortems," bring project stakeholders together to discuss what went well, and not so well, during the course of the project. It's an important step that is often lost to competing interests as the project team, clients, and sponsors rejoice in the successful close of a project.
Project leaders gain several key benefits when they gather lessons learned. First and most important, they gather feedback from all project team members - which might include internal and external clients, sponsors, and vendors - about what went well and what could improve.
Second, they invest in the team members who did the heavy lifting on the project. By engaging these team members and asking for their feedback, project leaders nurture strong relationships that help ensure successful projects in the future. Course evaluations, while valuable, simply do not provide the interactive forum that lessons-learned meetings do.
Generally speaking, lessons-learned meetings answer four questions:
What was expected to happen? This is a recap of the original goals of the project.
What actually occurred? This is a description of the actual direction of the project. It might be the same as what was expected, but then again (especially for big projects) it might be very different.
What went well, and why? It's important to acknowledge what went well because these are the practices that future project teams should continue to use. It's also important for team morale that participants acknowledge group and individual successes. The answers to this question also set the tone for the meeting, which is intended to be positive and productive.
What would you do differently, and how? This question elicits the most valuable information and is also the touchiest part of the meeting to facilitate. Likewise, there are four phases to lessons-learned meetings - timing, participants, meeting place, and outcome.
While the training team in our scenario held their lessons-learned session at the end of their project, it's a good idea to plan these meetings before and during a project.
Before. Ainsley Nies, a Northern California - based leadership and learning consultant, recommends holding a meeting with the team at the start of the project to identify opportunities and plan for project outcomes. This proactive approach sets the stage for the remainder of the project.
For example, when Nies started as a new project manager for a high-profile project, she included a retrospective - a particular type of lessons-learned session - in the project launch design. Essentially, Nies held the retrospective meeting before the project began so that the group could reflect on their experience with previous projects.
Nies started by breaking the team of 25 people into three working groups. Each group had 30 minutes to answer three questions:
1| What worked well in your previous projects that we should consider using on this project?
2| What would you have done differently in previous projects that we should keep in mind on this project?
3| What new things should we try on this project?
The whole group then reconvened for a debriefing session and created action items. Using this approach, Nies used the past to help illuminate the future.
During. For long projects, it is best not to wait until the end to discuss lessons learned. Team members might forget valuable feedback during the course of the project. In addition, the team might make early changes as a result of lessons learned, as opposed to waiting for the start of the next project.
Deciding when to discuss lessons learned depends on the length and structure of the project. If your project is a typical learning project, you could hold a lessons-learned meeting at the end of every phase. If, on the other hand, the project doesn't have distinct phases, you could hold the meeting every three to six months depending on the project's complexity.
A productive lessons-learned meeting is inclusive. That means that you'll need representation from every part of the project team. In addition to inviting internal project team members, you should also invite vendors and clients, whether they are internal to your organization or not.
Sharing and hearing lessons learned can be more awkward when vendors and clients are in the room, but it's worth it. By inviting your vendors and clients to share their feedback, you treat them like partners, which is priceless.
For teams of 15 or fewer, every team member should attend. For larger teams, invite representatives of every part of the team: instructional design, project management, IT, quality assurance, production, and so on. If you invite representatives and not the entire team, you have two options to ensure that the feedback that you gather is comprehensive.
One option is to ask representatives to gather input from their counterparts and report back during the lessons-learned meeting. Another option is to send out a survey to team members who will not be invited to the meeting to get their feedback. Show the results of the survey to the representatives so that they can read it when they prepare for the lessons-learned meeting. Their job is to provide their own input to the lessons-learned discussion, but also to represent the views of their counterparts.
You should be sensitive to inviting senior management to your lessons-learned meeting. They will certainly have valuable input. However, you might find that some team members will not speak freely (and some will not speak at all) if senior management is in the room. If you know your team well enough to predict that this issue will arise, gather feedback from senior management separately, and share it for them at the lessons-learned meeting.
If, on the other hand, you think that the team can communicate comfortably with senior management in the room, make sure to prepare your facilitator, who will need to monitor quiet team members more carefully than usual to ensure that they participate.
Facilitators are vital to lessons-learned meetings. Ask your facilitator to capture lessons learned throughout the meeting, or invite a note-taker to do so. Your facilitator can be the project manager or team lead, or someone outside the project who has experience facilitating meetings and drawing out valuable feedback.
Think twice before using a senior manager to facilitate. While doing so demonstrates executive support for the project, you'll find that team members provide little more than congratulatory feedback if the boss is presiding over the meeting.
You can plan to hold your lessons-learned meeting in a conference room, of course. Just be sure to make remote attendees feel as welcome as possible. You might need to set up a conference call and video or web conference so that they can see and hear the attendees and the list of captured lessons learned.
Another popular option is to hold the lessons-learned meeting in a place where you can also celebrate the successful completion of the project, such as a restaurant or a conference room that has the option of becoming a party room. Just keep in mind that holding the meeting in a restaurant will likely exclude remote attendees.
We've all attended meetings where everyone participates and offers great ideas and feedback. Then, when it's time to wrap up, everyone smiles, shakes hands, and heads out the door, leaving the great ideas to languish on flip charts and whiteboards.
When this happens, the team wastes an opportunity to leverage the great feedback that moved through the room during the session. Don't let this happen to you. There are two ways to help ensure that your team uses the feedback from the lessons-learned meeting to improve future projects. You can use one or both of these approaches.
The first is to document the feedback that comes up during sessions. The second is to create a list of action items and tie them to performance reviews. By documenting feedback and keeping it in a centralized place, you are creating a record that your team can refer to again and again. And, by tying action items to performance reviews, team members are more likely to take ownership of tasks and strengthen the company's practice and their own.
By now, you see the value in capturing lessons learned. You also see the potential challenges.
One challenge is getting busy people to attend the lessons-learned meeting, which can seem like an afterthought if they're on their next project. There are several strategies you can use to address this challenge. Make the meeting a mandatory part of the project close-out process so that project teams view it as an activity that they always participate in.
When team members share feedback or complaints with you during the project, acknowledge their feedback and encourage them to make a point of sharing it at the lessons-learned meeting. The goal is to get team members to see the ongoing value of their participation in the meeting. If these approaches don't entice them, promise them that there will be a celebration with pizza and cake at the end.
Getting team members to share their perspectives at a lessons-learned meeting can also be a significant challenge. Strong facilitation can help. First, the facilitator needs to establish ground rules that make people feel safe and free to participate. Ground rules should include
- Resist the temptation to accuse others or point fingers.
- Remember that no idea is a bad idea.
- Keep the meeting positive and constructive.
- Focus on solutions.
- Speak your mind.
- Listen carefully to others.
You might also send out a short survey with the four basic questions (or your variations), and ask meeting participants to fill it out in advance. Team members who are not comfortable speaking can turn in their written notes before the meeting for review by the facilitator. Team members who look forward to speaking can refer to their notes for topics to share.
Difficult or political projects
While an effective facilitator is always important, having a strong and experienced facilitator is particularly important for lessons-learned sessions on difficult or political projects with clients. In these cases, seek a completely unbiased facilitator.
Sometimes, the client will push to facilitate because they feel that it's their project and, therefore, their role to facilitate. Gently push back and insist on an external facilitator in this case. People tend to clam up when clients facilitate, fearing they will offend someone if they speak their mind. For these difficult or political projects, a strong, external facilitator needs to establish the ground rules and then ensure that the team stands by them.
Sometimes, people feel uncomfortable having the client anywhere near the session. Instead of providing valuable feedback, they limit their discussions to positive and celebratory statements. In this case, the facilitator needs to remind the team of the goals of the lessons-learned meeting.
The facilitator also might work with one team member in advance (and perhaps with the client, if willing) to prepare one piece of feedback to share in front of the entire group to show that the sky won't fall. It also helps if the client is willing to reiterate their commitment to the process and their openness to hearing feedback about their work on the project.
Used correctly and consistently, lessons learned can become a way for your organization to continuously improve its project people and processes. The key is to plan and facilitate the lessons-learned meetings to encourage full participation and to ensure that the resulting lessons are captured in such a way that the organization can learn from them. Think of the lessons-learned meeting as a team performance review, only better because there's pizza and cake at the end. T+D