Facilitating project performance improvement



Does the success of your organization depend on its ability to deliver successful projects? Are you interested in reducing the risk of failure, developing more effective teams, and taking out nonvalue-added time from project work? If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you should read on. This paper provides an overview of a practical, no-nonsense approach to facilitating performance improvement in project-based organizations that is grounded in cutting-edge research and practice in the fields of project management, organizational learning, and agile software development.

You can deploy this approach to:

▪    Ensure successful results with the implementation of new strategies

▪    Develop new products

▪    Roll out new technology

▪    Manage mission-critical programs.


Let's face it: project environments demand continuous learning and adaptation. Every new initiative requires that project managers and teams plan out their approach, even if it's only slightly different from the one they used the last time. Every new project and every phase of every project presents new challenges and opportunities. There aren't always established routines for solving every problem or seizing every opportunity that surfaces. Moreover, organizational priorities can change and markets can shift while projects are “in flight.” Thus, every stage of every project or program provides new experiences that require managers and teams to learn, adjust, and take action.

As a result, project organizations need mechanisms that enable them to continually adapt and adjust to ensure that they are focused on the right projects at the right time, that their processes are agile and effective, and that project teams are continually innovating from one phase to the next and from one project to the next.

Multi-Level Learning helps project organizations deliver rapid results, learn, and deliver again, eliminating waste, and delivering increasing levels of value as projects and programs proceed through their life cycle.

As a result of deploying the techniques in this paper, project organizations can:

▪    Reduce time to market for new products, systems, processes, and technologies

▪    Improve customer and end-user satisfaction with project outcomes

▪    Reduce risk of failure, wasted investment, and project runaway

▪    Improve productivity, quality, and teamwork

▪    Continuously improve delivery from one project, phase, and iteration to the next

Project Retrospectives: Agile, Intel, and the U.S. Army

There are organizations that have found great value in combining the concepts of lean with structured learning and reflection to continually deliver faster and better results. They've built these practices into their ongoing project and program management approach. Agile software development practices are breaking new ground on this front. These approaches engage team members in structured retrospectives after each “iteration,” identifying practical improvements that are applied to the next phase of project work (Derby & Larsen, 2006).

A similar approach has been in use by the U.S. Army in its training of combat teams in the deserts of California (Darling, Parry, & Moore, 2005). Units huddle after simulated battles to reflect on the original intent, what actually happened, and what can be improved for the next battle. The insights are then spread around the world to fight new enemies, who themselves adapt to changing conditions.

The computer chip maker Intel has adopted the use of retrospectives to improve product development practices around the globe (Lavell & Martinelli, 2008). Retrospectives have been so successful there that the company now has over 65 people trained to conduct these sessions on a regular basis, leading to improvements not just on a singular program, but to others that can use the innovations to improve quality and reduce development time.

Clearly, learning and reflection is not just for philosophers, poets, and academics. It's been built into the way work gets done to continually improve performance in some of the best learning organizations in the world.

The Red Light Learning Cycle

Yet while some organizations have built regular retrospectives into their ongoing routines, for most organizations, structured reflection most often occurs at the end of projects in the form of a post-project review or “lessons learned” session—if it occurs at all. Both the practitioners at Intel and recent studies on this topic show that this practice isn't working (Julian, 2008a; Lavell & Martinelli, 2008). It occurs too late for teams to improve, and they may not remember what happened over the course of a multi-month or multi-year program.

The result is that structured learning and improvement is deferred until it is too late—when the project is already over—or it is avoided altogether. Improvement, innovation and problem-solving are often left to chance. As a result, issues go unaddressed or avoided, creating “surprises,” “blow-ups,” or “fire drills” that can occur abruptly, triggering a “red light” on the “traffic light” reporting system for project status (Julian, 2008b). In these situations, project teams are hastily assembled so that senior managers can find out what went wrong, creating an environment driven by political in-fighting, personal threats to jobs and career prospects, and shotgun decisions that undermine future performance.

The “Red Light Learning” Cycle in Project Organizations

The red light learning cycle

Exhibit 1: The red light learning cycle.

As represented in Exhibit 1 above, the result is that reflection is actively avoided by people at all levels, largely because it is perceived as too threatening, political, ineffective, or all of the above. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle, because when structured reflection is avoided, it leads to further opportunities for blow-ups and surprises.

Organizations simply cannot afford to leave learning and continuous improvement to chance on their mission-critical investments. That's because without mechanisms for learning from experience, problems continue to remain under the surface, perhaps not addressed at all, enabling them to snowball into larger issues that trigger a “red light” on the project status reporting system.

Monumental failures can occur, leaving a wake of damaged reputations, blame, and losses of both time and money for the organization.

Leaving improvement to chance not only can lead to outright failures, it has huge opportunity costs. Improvements that could shorten project delivery time, improve productivity, reduce cost, or improve quality can go unexploited and forgotten. As a result, the organization winds up spending countless more time, dollars, and personnel on future projects. In the extreme, that means each project team reinvents the wheel every time that they start a new project. The chances are even more likely that this will happen in environments with poor cross-project communication and stressed-out project managers and teams.

Problems with Conventional Improvement Approaches

Many of the conventional approaches to improving project performance advocated by software vendors, standards bodies, and professional associations focus on improving “project management maturity,” deploying external standards and best practices, implementing new project management software, or conducting formal training programs.

All of these approaches can be useful, yet they downplay the knowledge, wisdom, and experience already resident in the organization that can be cost-effectively applied to improving performance within and between projects.

What is missing from these approaches is a systematic approach to facilitating learning from project experience so that the organization can focus its own talents and capabilities on solving and preventing problems to improve performance. And it should be done in a way that works for the organization's unique culture and needs, rather than imposes outside standards that require large amounts of training or consulting dollars to effectively deploy. Many project organizations have also implemented a project or program management office (PMO) to improve project performance. While PMOs can be a highly effective mechanism for facilitating performance improvement, most consider learning opportunities to be those situations in which a team or project manager didn't follow established procedures. Deviations from the methodology often become the only learning experiences recognized. Because of this, PMOs are often perceived as an extra layer of management that simply create bureaucracy and more rules that bog down projects.

This often results in a contentious relationship between teams and the PMO, one that creates rigidity and political wrangling that limits performance gains, inhibits innovation and learning, and saps morale. Although some PMOs may not yet have the capabilities to help their organization continuously improve, they can get there by adopting the principles and practices of Multi-Level Learning. First and foremost, they need to evolve into an effective broker of knowledge; one that serves to provide opportunities for teams to reflect on project experience using a neutral, objective facilitator who can help teams reflect and improve in a safe, structured environment that makes for productive knowledge generation and exchange.

The Solution: Improve Performance with Multi-Level Learning

Multi-Level Learning helps overcome many of the problems faced by project organizations. It helps reduce risk, deliver faster results, eliminate waste, and improve teamwork on mission-critical efforts. Its focus is on facilitating systematic learning at three levels: projects, processes, and strategies.

In larger organizations, these levels of learning may also reflect levels of the organization. Project teams are charged with primary responsibility for achieving objectives that deliver results for customers and internal clients. Program managers or project management office (PMO) leaders may be charged with sharing practice knowledge across projects to streamline processes, reduce waste, and shorten delivery time. And senior teams are primarily responsible for developing strategy and structuring a portfolio of projects and programs that enable them to achieve that strategy.

With Multi-Level Learning, teams at each of these levels are empowered to take primary responsibility for their own improvement. And if you've worked in project-intensive environments, you know how important it is to engage teams at all levels in order to deliver meaningful results. After all, decisions made at each level affect the others. Achieving business transformation success means not only delivering successful projects, but selecting the right projects to begin with. It also means supporting teams with approaches and methodologies that help them achieve their work in the most effective way.

As shown in Exhibit 2 below, Multi-Level Learning is a closed-loop system that directs actionable feedback to the way work gets done at each of these levels. It is neither “bottom-up” nor “top-down.” It is both. Nor is it an end in itself: It is a vehicle for achieving the organization's strategic goals, for transforming the way business gets done, and generating better outcomes on mission-critical projects and programs, from one phase to the next, and from one project to the next.

Multi-Level Learning

Exhibit 2: Multi-Level Learning.

Level 1 – Project

The focus at the project team level is on continually innovating and improving as projects progress, not just reflecting at the end to develop “lessons learned” that get stored on databases and don't get used. Instead, project teams stop and reflect at regular intervals while the project is “in flight,” to define improvements and actions items that are actively applied during the next phase. The result is learning and performance improvement as the project progresses, reducing the risk of project failure, improving team effectiveness, and providing real-time feedback and development opportunities for project members.

Level 2 – Program/Process

At Level 2 of the Multi-Level Learning framework—the process and program management level—project managers are enlisted, sometimes by a project or program management office (PMO), to improve processes that span multiple projects and programs.

At this level, project managers team up and tackle specific cross-project problems and opportunities that, when adequately addressed, will improve delivery effectiveness across the many projects in the portfolio, creating a “multiplier” effect.

Process improvement is at the core of this approach, where project managers actively reflect on mission-critical organizational routines to implement improvements that break down bureaucracy, reduce waste, eliminate delays, and unlock innovation.

This kind of improvement is much more powerful and practical than simply hosting knowledge-sharing sessions or reporting out lessons learned among project managers. The result is real improvement across projects and buy-in from those who need to implement the change. Engaging project managers to improve cross-project processes can reduce costs, improve productivity, and cut down on the time required to deliver results.

Level 3 – Portfolio / Strategy

Senior managers and sponsors play a pivotal role. They not only champion improvement at the project and program levels, they also look back themselves at the organization's overall project portfolio and its fitness for achieving the organization's strategy. Rather than focusing on a specific project, the strategy retrospective is focused on broader programs and strategies, of which projects are a part. Questions include: Is the organization achieving its intended strategy with the projects in the pipeline? What adjustments need to be made to ensure that we achieve our intended results? Which projects need to be initiated, cancelled, or re-purposed? What actions need to be taken and at which levels of the organization?


When project organizations do not have effective mechanisms for improvement, learning remains largely informal and incidental. Improvement, innovation, and problem-solving are often left to chance. Issues go unaddressed or avoided, creating “surprises,” “blow-ups,” or “fire drills” that can occur abruptly, triggering a “red light” on the “traffic light” reporting system for project status that torpedoes attempts at constructive learning and improvement. Multi-Level Learning breaks this red light learning cycle by providing organizations with a mechanism to continually improve results at each of three levels: project, process, and strategy. The three levels of Multi-Level Learning create a synergistic effect that enables teams at each level to build on the learning of the others, including project teams, program management teams, and senior management teams. This ensures that the right projects are selected at the right time; that project managers and teams are pooling their collective knowledge to streamline cross-project processes; and that project teams are continually innovating over the course of their work to improve project outcomes for customers and clients.

The principles of Multi-Level Learning have been put to use by many organizations, including Intel, the U.S. Army, and a growing number of IT organizations who have adopted Agile development approaches.

Learn more about project performance improvement and multi-level learning at JulianAdvisory.com


Darling, M., Parry, C., & Moore, J. (2005). Learning in the thick of it. Harvard Business Review, 83(7), 84.

Derby, E., & Larsen, D. (2006). Agile retrospectives: Making good teams great. Raleigh, N.C.: Pragmatic Bookshelf.

Julian, J. (2008a). What the research says about lessons learned and what it means for your organization. KMPro Journal, 5(2), 6–13

Julian, J. (2008b). How project management office leaders facilitate cross-project learning and continuous improvement. Project Management Journal, 39(3), 43–58.

Lavell, D., & Martinelli, R. (2008). Program and project retrospectives: An introduction. PM World Today, X(1) 1–5.

© 2009 Jerry Julian
Published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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