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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

5 Steps to Facilitating a Great Lessons Learned Session

Real learning comes from a period of reflection. Lessons learned are an informal conversation where you look at a project in retrospect. It is done after project completion, usually conducted as a meeting involving the project manager and key representatives within the project. During the lessons learned meeting everyone shares their perspective on what they thought about the project, what they would have changed, what they learned and what could have been done better.

Lessons learned workshops are performed for three reasons: The first is to learn from mistakes and to avoid these mistakes in future projects. The second is to gather best practices — that is smart ways of doing something — and to pass on this knowledge to other project leaders. The third reason is for trust building with your stakeholders and team members. Involving people in the process and giving them the opportunity to share their perspective will make them more supportive towards project management as well as future projects.

The lessons learned process involves 5 steps with activities that will capture and use lessons learned. The five steps are:

Plan ahead. You could just sit down at a round table with all the key stakeholders and go around the room. The problem with that is what should take 1-2 hours could go on all day.  Decide in advance on when and where you will hold the lessons learned meeting with your schedule. Write and distribute a simple one-page agenda for the lessons learned meeting in advance. This agenda will include items such as ground rules, idea starting questions and lessons learned to follow up. It will help them come to this sometimes awkward session more prepared and more understanding of the overall focus of the meeting… making the meeting and information to be shared more helpful, focused and productive.

Get feedback. 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. Elicit feedback in advance. If you can collect and send out the combined notes before the meeting, participants can analyze the input, identify common patterns and focus team time on the nuances and specifics.

Set the Ground Rules. 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. It also makes the meeting much more efficient because you won’t be wasting valuable time brainstorming from scratch.

Conduct. Let’s face it. Lessons learned sessions can be unappealing if they’re viewed as overcomplicated and time consuming. The essential lessons learned collection process really boils down to three questions:

What went well?

What didn’t go so well?

How can we do more of what worked and less of what didn’t work?

Anything more than that and you’ll likely find them so cumbersome that everyone will want to abandon the exercise.

Take great notes or have someone on the team take great notes – it has to be someone who went through the project and experienced the ups and downs so they understand the discussion and any comments being made. There will be lots of head nodding – or head shaking.

Follow up. Integrate the lessons learned into your organization. Always follow up any important meeting or discussion with the notes from the meeting and send those out to all attendees and proposed attendees who weren’t in attendance. The key is always to make sure everyone has a say and that everyone is on the same page at the end of the day. Ask for feedback with 24 hours, revise the notes, and send back out one final time.

Review those lessons the next time you launch the same phase in a subsequent project. Before you even get into the specifics of a new project or project phase, remind yourself of the positives and pitfalls from prior efforts. Commit to maximizing the productive aspects of previous projects and minimizing repeat mistakes.

Lessons learned is all about understanding what you all did “right” and what you all could have done “better.” It’s not about finger pointing. It’s about learning. To become better. As a project manager and as a team but also as an organization. This learning effect only materializes when action is taken in response to the lessons learned.

If you follow these five steps, I can’t guarantee that you’ll execute perfectly on every critical success factor. I am confident, however, that you’ll start to notice a gradual change over time that, in sum, will lead to new efficiencies and a culture of continuous improvement.

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