“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana, Philosopher
Project post-mortems. Lessons learned meetings. Project retrospectives.
Whatever you call it, make sure you make time to talk with your project team and sponsors after delivery and break down what worked — and what didn’t — along the way.
I like to hold a project post-mortem shortly after celebrating the final deliverables with my team. It feels important to take at least a few moments and acknowledge everyone’s hard work and successes before wading into a more in-depth breakdown of lessons learned. The bigger the project, the larger the celebration meeting or outing.
But then it’s back to business, to discuss what went right, what we could have done differently, what we might do differently next time.
This retrospective is essential, for myself as a project manager and for my teams.
I do keep a lessons learned register that I jot notes into while managing projects. Particularly for longer-running and more intensive projects, it can be difficult to recall all the little details after the fact, so taking notes along the way works well for me.
Project Post-Mortems: Start With the Scope
When it’s time to review the project and discuss lessons learned, I like to start with a review of the scope statement.
Did we deliver what was requested and only what was requested? If I’ve done my job with Project Scope Management, the answer to that question should be a resounding “yes!”
Comparing deliverables to initial requests is a great way to dig into lessons learned, and from there, we can dig into feedback — mine and the team’s — on what worked and what didn’t throughout the project. A few questions I like to address include:
- Did we use the ideal methodology for the project’s needs?
For example, was an Agile approach really the best fit for the project, or should we have considered Waterfall?
- Did we respond to specific issues in the best way?
Problems always arise during projects, as do change requests, so it’s worthwhile to ask whether we addressed those as well as we could have, and consider whether we should handle any similar issues differently in the future.
- How did things go for each member of the project team?
A different way to frame this question could be something like “How can I better help or support you in the next project?” This can be a tricky question, as it can sometimes be difficult to get complete and honest responses to this question in a group setting, so if everyone is comfortable and contributing, I’ll plow ahead with this one in the meeting. If the responses are scant, I’ll ask the team to think it over and shoot me an email or schedule a time to talk 1:1.
- Was the client or sponsor happy with the project deliverable?
This is an obvious question that should be addressed during project closure, but I like to share that feedback to the team during a project post-mortem; that way, if there is any constructive criticism (or worse!) from the client or sponsor, we can dig into it as part of our lessons learned.
Talking about the project successes and pain points is a great way to learn from mistakes and improve in the future, but capturing that information is crucial to making it stick. You might not come up against the same issues in your very next project –- or even in your next three –- so having a “lessons learned repository” of sorts can be extremely valuable. However you structure this repository, it should be something you can reference in the future and quickly/easily find what you’re looking for.
I like to organize my lessons learned documentation using Google Docs, with separate docs for each project and then subheadings within the docs that detail the problem we documented to learn from in the future. That way I can quickly and easily search my gDrive for subheadings by keyword, or I can review the lessons learned registers project by project if I want.
If you have any advice for holding project post-mortems or documenting lessons learned for future reference, please leave a note in the comments below!