How to Facilitate an Effective Lessons Learned Discussion

February 19th, 2012

What is a Lessons Learned Discussion?

A lesson learned is defined as a good work practice or an innovative approach that is captured and shared to promote repeat application or avoid recurrence.  Well-documented lessons learned enable us to further mature our project management capability and our ability to deliver projects that leverage repeatable processes.  Both advantageous and adverse consequences within a project can result in lessons learned and those that are particularly positive may be communicated outside of the team and promoted as a best practice.  These lessons learned should become part of your organization’s process assets to provide future project teams with valuable insight into previous projects that were similar in nature about what went well and what did not go well or had unintended consequences.

  • Lessons learned should be documented throughout the life of a project
  • Lessons learned captured at the end of one project should be reviewed at the initiation of a similar projects
  • Lessons learned provide invaluable insight to project managers and team members of new projects

Why Facilitate a Lessons Learned Discussion?

When project managers pull together members of a project team, they should invite all who contributed to the overall effort.   The objective of meeting is to have a discussion and collectively identify lessons learned during the previous phase or project closure so that future projects may benefit from and usefully apply those insights that were gained on past efforts.  During the course of the discussion, the objective of the exercise is to recognize and document those insights so that the future project efforts incorporate more of the successful things and less of the unsuccessful things encountered by this project team.

Additionally, lessons learned exercises give members a chance to reflect on events and activities during the project and helps bring closure to the project.  It should provides attendees a safe and open opportunity for team members, sponsors, and stakeholders to talk about:
  • Successes that happened during or because of the project
  • Unintended outcomes that happened during or because of the project
  • Other things that, in retrospect, might have been better handled if done differently
  • Recommendations to others who might be involved in future projects of a similar type

How Do I Facilitate and Effective Lessons Learned Discussion?

To help guide the discussion, try to focus on major categories including people, process, and technology and then further define the lesson learned by type – wheter the lesson is beneficial, detrimental, or simply a good practice.

Capture lessons learned that address the following:

  • People – Project and organizational staffing  and training (e.g., loading, availability, skill mix) and training (e.g., available, required, provided, needed, etc.)
  • Process – Defined process and the organizational standard process (i.e., processes, procedures, standards, methodologies, templates, and guideliness
  • Tools/Technology – Organizational tools and equipment (e.g., statistical analysis/reporting tools, version control systems, simulators, databases, hardware, etc.)

Consider the impact/outcome of the lesson and how future projects may be affected:

  • Beneficial – Lesson learned from an actual project event with advantageous outcome.  Communications relating to beneficial lessons learned are normally limited to project personnel
  • Detrimental – Lesson learned from an actual project event with adverse consequences.  Communications relating to detrimental lessons learned are normally limited to project personnel
  • Good Practice – Practice promoting or resulting in a positive outcome (i.e., success story) that should be considered as a “best practice” within the organization.  Communications relating to good practice lessons learned are extended to personnel outside the project (e.g., natural team, firm-wide, etc.)

Before you begin your discussion, it important cover a few ground rules that will help to set expectations of all participants and ensure a productive meeting:

  • The point of the exercise is to recognize and document lessons so that the future project efforts of others do more of the successful things and less of the unsuccessful things encountered by the project team
  • Remain focused on discussions that will yield lessons learned within the define amount of time you have scheduled
  • Focus on behaviors or tactics that were successful or problematic, rather than people who were successful or problematic
  • Hear from everybody and recognize that everyone who contributed to the project may have input regardless of their amount of project/deliverable involvement
  • Most importantly, let’s keep the conversation positive and productive

What Types of Questions Should the Facilitator Ask During the Lessons Learned Discussion?

Here are some questions to consider before you begin your lessons learned discussion:

  1. Were the project goals attained?
  2. What went well?  Provide examples of successes that happened during or because of the project
  3. What didn’t go well?  Discuss unintended outcomes that happened during or because of the project
  4. What might have been better handled if done differently?
  5. What recommendations would you give to others who might be involved in future projects of a similar type?
  6. What was beyond your control?
  7. What things surprised you on the project that were not planned?
  8. What things did you anticipate happening that did not happen?
  9. What mistakes did you successfully avoid making?
  10. What could we automate or simplify that we do repetitively?
  11. What skills did you need that were missing on this project?

After your lessons learned discussion be sure to thank your participants for their time and participation and them that results of the discussion will provide valuable insights into future endeavors.  Offer your attendees an opportunity to provide additional input (i.e. something you did not want to share in front of the group, or something that comes to you later) and provide an email address to send these comments.

Now That You Have Facilitated a Great Lessons Learned Discussion, What happens next?

Now that you have facilitated your lessons learned discussion, here are some helpful hints for next steps:

  • Fully capture the essence of the discussion and finalize a formal lessons learned document
  • Validate lessons learned, seek clarification when/where necessary
  • Summarize lessons learned  and provide teams with a summary deck
  • Socialize and refine; disseminate lessons learned within each project team
  • Ensure your lessons learned are stored within your project management system to serve as project assets for future endeavors

How VeriScope Can Help You?

VeriScope has bulit a leading project management consulting practice on deep functional expertise and unmatched ability to elevate business results.  Available on a consulting or contractual basis, allow us to plan and facilitate your next lessons learned discussion and ensure outcomes are translated into actionable learning across your organization.  Contact us today for more information. 

About the author:  Joe Giampa is a seasoned management consultant, Project Management Professional (PMP), and a Prosci certified Change Management practitioner.  Joe shares his experiences gained over the last twelve years while bringing to life the visions of senior leaders by implementing leading-edge solutions, systems, and processes for multi-billion dollar companies.  Joe is the Chief Project Manager at VeriScope, Inc. – a leading provider of Project Management consulting, staffing, and training to commercial and government clients looking to  mature internal project management capabilities and maximize successful project outcomes.

Follow Joe on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.  Read other blog posts.

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  22. Diane Says:

    I’m getting ready to facilitate a 1-hr con call that is our lessons-learned debrief after a large software deployment of electronic medical record software. My team is part of the overall deployment, and we’re analysts who build and support the software, but we are not included in the lessons-learned that the PMO holds– and boy, do we have feedback. So we’re holding our own, and will be documenting our input and sharing it with the PMO. Thanks for this post about how to best facilitate this kind of discussion. I’ve captured some of your tips and have prepped a spreadsheet that I’ll forward to my team in advance of the meeting so they can start to gather their thoughts.

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    I’m glad that you found this information helpful! Please let us know if we may be of any assistance in implementing any of your lessons learned. Joe

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