Making transfer of lessons fun, engaging and a lot more effective
Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Director, LIFELONG, Kuwait
Muhammad Umar Ilyas, GM IT Data Centers, PTCL, Pakistan
Documentation of lessons are rightly considered to be indispensable project closing activities. If done diligently, not only do lessons learned provide valuable insights which can help ongoing projects, they also prove critical to the successful planning of future efforts. While most organizations do ensure that lessons are recorded through the processes embedded in their methodologies, many end up faltering in efforts to transfer the captured lessons to different teams and organizational units effectively.
This paper enumerates the common approaches used to transfer lessons and discusses the pros and cons of each approach. While highlighting the shortcomings of traditional approaches, it advocates alternative strategies, which not only make it fun to transfer lessons but also ensure more objective outcomes which can be effectively leveraged on future projects. The paper suggests that organizations should invest sufficient time and resources to ensure that any lessons captured can be transferred across teams and organizational units in a timely manner.
Based on the experience gained from successfully conducting lessons transfer exercises around the globe and across different industries, the authors propose using tools and techniques which encourage high levels of interaction and assimilation. While specific arrangements depend on the unique circumstances of each organization, this paper describes different options which can be adopted by organizations across all industries. The suggested techniques also help in mending the relationships strained during the execution of projects and also facilitate in recollection of significant events and issues. While most of the techniques apply to common projects, proven strategies for handling troubled initiatives and special situations are also presented in this paper.
Traditional Approaches of Documenting and Transferring Lessons
Despite a growing push toward adopting proven project management methodologies and best practices, organizations across the globe have varied attitudes toward conducting project reviews (Williams, 2007). Though a majority of organizations have deployed formal procedures to extract and document lessons learned, only a few closely adhere to these procedures. Some organizations also have dedicated departments or business units tasked with performing project reviews aimed at enhancing learning as well as compliance. Some organizations also rely on external facilitators or consultants to support the process.
Common Processes Used
Meetings are the process most often used by organizations to document lessons learned. Interviews and project audits are the next most common. Other processes employed for the purpose include:
- Learning diaries;
- Asking customers;
- External facilitators;
- External teams.
To transfer lessons, written documentation is used most often, followed by moving people, ad hoc processes, and presentations. Other processes used for transferring lessons include:
- IT mediated systems;
- Development of new procedures;
- Communities of practice (CoP);
- Resource centers;
- Micro articles.
The percentage of companies using the aforementioned processes for capturing and transferring lessons learned is given in Exhibit 1.
Exhibit 1: Common Processes Used for Documenting and Transferring Lessons Learned
Effectiveness of Documentation and Transfer of Lessons
Most methodologies encourage efforts to capture and transfer lessons regularly during the project as well at the conclusion. On many projects, however, the most serious undertaking to ensure documentation of lessons is done at the conclusion of the project. Organizations having greater project management maturity mostly rely on standard forms to capture lessons, and there are indications that more and more organizations are also investing in creating and maintaining knowledge bases for seamless archival and retrieval of lessons. Some organizations also record and archive all reference data collected during and after the project (Thomas, 2011).
Despite spending time and effort on documenting lessons during and after the project, only a small fraction of practitioners believe that they do the required exercise the way it should be done. Lack of employee time and lack of management support were believed to be the main factors hindering effective documentation of lessons. Project management practitioners also believe that, even when considerable investment is made to document the lessons, efforts to transfer the same to a wider audience are often overlooked due to other pressing commitments.
Other factors which discourage practitioners from active engagement in documenting and transferring lessons are the following:
- There is a lack of incentive;
- There is a lack of resources;
- There is a lack of clear guidelines;
- There is a lack of support from others in the organization;
- Processes used are not able to capture useful lessons;
- Data repository is hard to search;
- Lessons are not transferable;
- Wrong people are involved.
Proposed Approach for Documenting and Transferring Lessons
It is proposed that the entire project management team be engaged when lessons are documented at key milestones of the project. The tools and techniques, being proposed herewith, also ensure that the lessons are transferred to the participants during the exercise. Observers from teams working on similar projects can also be invited to encourage wider assimilation of lessons in the organization.
The following sections provide guidelines on how to use tools and techniques which not only encourage a more objective documentation of lessons but also provide opportunities to transfer the lessons while they are documented.
Setting the Tone
This category refers to tools and techniques aimed at setting the tone and kicking off the exercise. The objectives of the exercise are explained and ground rules are set to ensure that all participants are actively engaged and feel safe to share their experiences and suggestions.
This technique is used to break the ice and set the tone for the exercise. Participants are asked to define successful projects and the definitions are recorded on flip charts. The facilitator gradually leads the discussion to suggest that success is always relative, and an absolute success would entail that future efforts are undertaken using the exact same processes, team compositions, timelines, and costing estimates, as well as other assumptions. As the participants start suggesting that several things could be done better in the future, the facilitator brings home the idea that this exercise is being conducted to discover things that could be done the same way and also explore things which should be done differently for better results.
Creating a “Safe Haven”
The participants are given a safety poll to gauge the initial level of comfort and safety enjoyed by the group. Once the total safety level is ascertained by adding the scores of individuals, participants are asked to organize themselves into smaller affinity groups and suggest ground rules that may enhance the comfort and safety during the exercise. The ground rules suggested by each group are shared with all the participants, and a combined list of rules is prepared. The facilitator may suggest a few rules, if missing from the combined list, and add them to the list after approval of the participants. Typical rules may include:
- Managing the amount of time a participant may speak in any single instance;
- Speaking from one's own perspective without making assumptions about anyone else's perspective;
- Allowing those who wish to express themselves to speak without interruptions;
- Focusing on maximal learning and avoiding a blame game.
The tools and techniques in this category help participants in recalling significant events and milestones during the project. Participants are encouraged to discuss the events and milestones with the objective of learning each other's perspectives, documenting any details omitted from formally documented lessons, and reaching a better understanding of how the participants coped with stressful project activities.
Participants are asked to bring project-related artifacts, prepared during the term being reviewed. The artifacts are placed in the middle of the hall. Once all artifacts are piled together, the person who brought each artifact is asked to tell the story of that artifact. The story should include mention of people who prepared the artifact and the perceived importance of the artifact to the project management effort. Others in the audience are asked to share their thoughts about the artifact once the story is completed. Once all artifacts are discussed, the following three individuals are rewarded:
- The participant who brought the largest number of artifacts;
- The participant who brought the most significant artifact (decided by participants’ vote);
- The participant who brought the most unusual artifact (again decided by participants’ vote).
Large sheets of paper are pasted on the wall, and columns are drawn to reflect the project calendar. Participants are asked to write down significant events, artifacts, or milestones on separate index cards and paste the cards in the appropriate column on the wall as shown in Exhibit 2. The facilitator asks all participants to walk along the resulting project timeline, which helps in recalling any details which might have been forgotten. The timeline is then used to hold discussions around the events, artifacts, and milestones. Participants are asked to begin by recording their observations and recommendations individually and later to work in affinity groups to review the lessons documented during the project or at its conclusion. Any lessons discovered as a result of this exercise are documented. A first draft of recommendations and suggestions is then prepared collectively by each affinity group.
Exhibit 2: Completed Project Timeline
An emotional seismograph is used to identify factors which led to participants’ happiness and unhappiness on the project being reviewed. All index cards on the project timeline are placed near a straight line drawn in the middle of the sheets. Participants then move their own cards above the line if they were happy at that particular time and below the line if they were unhappy or stressed out. The distance from the middle line reflects the intensity of feelings. Each participant's cards are then joined by lines, and the result is project's emotional seismograph as shown in Exhibit 3.
Exhibit 3: Emotional Seismograph
Healing the Wounds
Participants are asked to spend time playing an indoor game in cross-affinity teams prepared by the facilitator. Games which involve people teaming up to score higher are more suitable. The objective of this exercise is to let people interact with each other in an informal environment, an opportunity they may not have during actual projects. This serves to bring individuals closer and heal any relationships which might have gone sour due to project-related responsibilities.
The tools and techniques in this category help participants in suggesting improvements to processes, team compositions, and task assignments on future projects. The recommendations made earlier during the project and at the conclusion of significant milestones are also reviewed again. Updates are made if necessary, incorporating the new information discovered as part of previous techniques.
Participants are divided into small cross-affinity teams to review the lessons learned so far and suggest ways to improve the practice of project management in the future. Recommendations of teams are then shared with the entire group, and a final list of recommendations is prepared after detailed deliberations.
Changing the Paper
Participants take a closer look at the project artifacts including templates, standard forms, reports, and dashboards. They identify fields, format, and content considered to be unnecessary and suggest those which should be added to make the project artifacts more effective and efficient.
Handling Special Situations
While the aforementioned tools and techniques are suitable for most projects, special situations can be addressed by specific tools.
Proposed for projects classified as troubled or challenged, this technique involves holding an interview with a successful and widely respected executive leader. The facilitator conducts the interview, which is focused on how the interviewee leader had coped with challenges and failures during early stages of his or her career before achieving success. The purpose is to help participants realize that failure is an opportunity to undo wrongs and develop strategies which can lead to success in the future.
Evangelizing Better Project Management
This exercise helps participants prepare strategies for improving the practice of project management in organizations where strict change management procedures hinder individual creativity and freedom. Participants are asked to work in small teams to create workable plans which enhance awareness around proposals aimed at improving practices. Participants also plan how to apply their ideas on smaller scales and then document the benefits realized to make a case for wider application of similar strategies.
This paper highlights the shortcomings of the traditional approaches used in documenting and transferring lessons. The paper advocates an alternative approach that not only makes it fun to perform the reviews but also ensures more objective outcomes which can be effectively leveraged on future projects as well as remaining terms of current projects.
Norman Kerth (2001), Project retrospectives: A handbook for team reviews. New York, NY: Dorset House..
Williams, T. (2007). Post-project reviews to gain effective lessons learned. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Willis, H. (2011). The basics of project evaluation and lessons learned. New York, NY: Productivity Press, ISBN.
© 2014, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas, Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Muhammad Umar Ilyas
Originally published as part of 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA