Lessons learned meetings, post-project reviews, or post-mortems are essential to project management. These meetings provide an opportunity for project teams to review the successes and challenges of a project, identify areas for improvement, and develop strategies to enhance future project outcomes. However, conducting an effective lessons-learned meeting requires careful planning and execution. Let’s examine the key steps to help you lead a successful and productive lessons-learned meeting.
- Note Potential Lessons Learned Throughout the Project: Encourage the team to make notes throughout the project on potential improvements that can be made in the future. Waiting to identify them at the end of the project, especially a more significant or longer project, may cause critical items to be missed. Also, consider conducting lessons-learned meetings more frequently, such as at the end of significant project phases or deliverables.
- Define the Purpose and Scope of the Meeting: Before conducting a lessons-learned meeting, it's essential to define the purpose and scope of the meeting. The objective should be clear and focused on improving future projects. The scope should identify the project or phase the session will cover, the participants who will attend, and the topics to be discussed. At a minimum, the discussion should include two key topics: what went well, should be repeated, and what needs improvement or should be discontinued.
- Gather Feedback and Data: To ensure an effective lessons-learned meeting, you must gather feedback and data from project team members and stakeholders. This data can come from various sources, including project reports, surveys, agile retrospectives, and individual feedback sessions. Be sure to compile this information and organize it into relevant categories to make it easier to discuss during the meeting.
- Create an Agenda and Set Expectations: Once you have defined the purpose and scope of the meeting and gathered feedback and data, it's time to create an agenda and set expectations. The agenda should cover the topics, the order of discussion, and the time allotted for each item. Setting expectations means communicating the meeting's purpose, objectives, and ground rules to all participants before the meeting. Time for such meetings is always a concern, so be sure the meeting is as short as possible while providing value. One hour will be sufficient for many projects.
- Conduct the Meeting: During the meeting, it's essential to maintain focus and facilitate productive discussions. Encourage all participants to contribute to the discussion and ensure that the conversation stays on track by referring to the agenda when necessary. Be sure to take notes and capture action items as they arise.
- Analyze and Synthesize the Feedback and Data: After the meeting, analyze and synthesize the feedback and data collected. Identify trends, recurring themes, and areas of consensus and disagreement. Categorize the feedback and data into strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) to help identify areas for improvement and potential risks for future projects. These results should be shared with stakeholders for ease of future access and reference – do not place the notes in an obscure folder known only to a few!
- Develop and Implement Action Items: All effective meetings end with action items. Based on the analysis and synthesis of the feedback and data, develop and implement action items to address the identified areas for improvement. Action items should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). They should include turning over the results to executives or the Project Management Office (PMO) for implementation organization-wide and the steps you will take for your next project. Assign responsibility for each action item, and set deadlines for completion.
In conclusion, do not treat lessons learned as a project afterthought. An effective lessons-learned meeting is critical to improving project outcomes and organizational learning. Project teams can ensure productive and successful lessons-learned meetings by carefully planning meetings, appropriately facilitating the discussion, analyzing and synthesizing the feedback and data, and developing and implementing action items.
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