The art and science of post project reviews

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Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Director, LIFELONG, Kuwait

Muhammad Umar Ilyas, GM IT Data Centers, PTCL, Pakistan

Introduction

Project reviews and documentation of lessons learned are rightly considered to be indispensable project closing activities. If done diligently, lessons learned do not only provide valuable insights which can help ongoing projects, they also prove critical to the successful planning of future efforts. Since the more exciting project activities are already complete when most of the lessons learned are documented, many project managers find it difficult to elicit the level of commitment required to objectively complete this serious undertaking.

This paper highlights the shortcomings of the traditional approaches used in Post Project Reviews and advocates alternative strategies which not only make it fun to perform the reviews, but also ensure more objective outcomes which can be effectively leveraged on future projects. The paper suggests that Post Project Reviews should be led by an independent facilitator to ensure that current biases do not impede the discovery of lessons learned or shaping of recommendations for the future.

Based on the experience gained from successfully conducting Post Project Reviews around the globe and across different industries, the authors propose engineering reviews as distinct projects having their own lifecycle stages and activities. While specific arrangements depend on the unique circumstances of project teams, this paper describes different techniques which can be applied to initiate, plan, execute, control and close the review. The suggested techniques help in mending the relationships strained during the project and also facilitate in recollection of significant events and issues. While most of the techniques apply to common projects, proven strategies for handling troubled projects and special situations are also presented in this paper. The paper concludes with recommendations on documenting the review project and its outcomes.

Traditional Approaches used for Post Project Reviews

Despite growing push towards adopting proven project management methodologies and best practices, organizations across the globe have varied attitudes toward conducting post 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 post 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. It is followed by interviews and project audits. Other processes employed for the purpose include the following:

  • Learning Diaries
  • Narratives
  • Asking Customers
  • External Facilitators
  • External Team

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
  • Mentoring
  • Development of New Procedures
  • Narratives
  • Training
  • Communities of Practice (CoP)
  • Resource Centres
  • Micro Articles

The percentage of companies using the aforementioned processes for capturing and transferring lessons learned is given in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1 – Common processed used for documenting and transferring lessons learned.

Timelines and Format

Most methodologies encourage efforts to capture and transfer lessons regularly during the project as well as at the conclusion. However, a formal undertaking to ensure documentation of lessons is mostly done at the conclusion of the project. Organizations having greater project management maturity 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).

Reflections on the Experience

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. Other factors which discourage practitioners from active engagement in the exercise are listed in the following:

  • Lack of incentive
  • Lack of resources
  • Lack of clear guidelines
  • 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

Post Project Reviews – An Alternative Approach

Active engagement of project stakeholders is essential to enhance the effectiveness of lessons documented during and after the project. Getting inspiration from tools used in reviews of software projects (Kerth, 2001), the alternative approach being proposed herewith aims at ensuring the following:

  • Providing an opportunity to reflect on the project in an environment free from a project's typically stressful atmosphere
  • Allowing stakeholders to explore different perspectives without the risk of jeopardizing team harmony during project execution
  • Enhancing organizational learning and evolution through active engagement of stakeholders in documenting lessons and recommending improvements

A New Ritual?

In order to ensure that stakeholders actively contribute to a post project review, it must be made an integral component of a project management lifecycle. Yet as a new ritual, it must be conducted in a manner which is clearly distinct from activities aimed at achieving the project's primary objectives. This ritual does not replace the traditional efforts aimed at capturing and transferring lessons. It rather complements the efforts performed during the project as well as in the immediate aftermath.

Ideally conducted four to six weeks after the administrative closure of a project, the ritual provides an ambience different than the project itself and allows stakeholders to think retrospectively. With ground rules set differently from a typical project and operational routine, it also serves to heal interpersonal relationships which might have strained during the project.

Prime Directive

The approach being proposed can be successful only if the following is ensured:

  • Exercise is kept free from blame game
  • Participants remain focused on learning from the past and preparing for the future
  • Different perspectives are explored
  • Discussions are conducted in a setting where all participants feel safe to share their ideas and insights
  • Practical and unbiased recommendations are drafted for future projects

Proposed Tools & Techniques – The Art

Instead of relying solely on standard forms and knowledge bases, it is proposed to make use of tools and techniques which encourage higher degree of interaction and free flow of ideas. It is also proposed that the review is led by an independent facilitator to ensure unbiased management of the review exercise. The facilitator can be selected from within the organization but is ideally a person who has not worked in any capacity on the project being reviewed.

The proposed tools and techniques, which will be described in detail later in this paper, also provide project stakeholders an opportunity to heal relationships which get strained due to the stressful nature of project responsibilities. The proposed tools and techniques are categorized as following:

  • Setting the Tone
  • Recollections
  • Future Shaping
  • Handling Special Situations

Proposed Structure – The Science

It is proposed that reviews are structured like typical projects with the following lifecycle elements.

Review Initiation

This involves review of project documentation, particularly lessons learned, to understand the dynamics of the project and major issues faced. This allows the facilitator to identify areas of concern which require more detailed analysis and discussions during the review.

Review Planning

This element involves tailoring of review by selecting the following:

  • Tools and techniques
  • Appropriate venue
  • Collating essential data and records
  • Preparing a team (if the participants are expected to be more than 20)
  • Identifying the required and optional stakeholders who should participate in the review
  • Budgeting and scheduling the review

Review Execution

This involves carrying out the review using the tools and techniques identified during Review Planning. The facilitator will encourage active involvement of all participants and ensure that each exercise yields information which may help in improving project related efforts in the future.

Review Monitoring & Control

The facilitator should not participate in the discussions but must ensure that all critical aspects are thoroughly discussed by the participants. Other responsibilities include maintaining reasonable order and avoid causing emotional breakdowns. A “Safe Haven” must be maintained at all times and important discoveries should be documented.

Review Closing

The facilitator ensures that the review comes to an orderly close and all discoveries and recommendations are properly documented. The participants are also asked to rate the review and suggest how the exercise can be improved for the future.

Proposed Tools and Techniques

This section provides guidelines on how to use the tools and techniques proposed as part of our approach to conduct post project reviews.

Setting the Tone

This category includes tools and techniques aimed at setting the tone and kicking-off the review. The objectives of the review are explained and ground rules are set to ensure that all participants are actively engaged and feel safe to share their experiences and suggestions.

Defining Success

This technique is used to break the ice and set the tone for the review. 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 projects 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 divide 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 the entire audience 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:

  • 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
  • Focus on maximizing learning and avoiding blame game

Recollections

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 reach a better understanding of how the participants coped with stressful project activities.

Project Archaeology

Participants are asked to bring project related artifacts retained by them and place them 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 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 highest 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)

Project Timeline

Large sheets of paper are pasted on the wall and columns are drawn to reflect the project calendar. Participants are asked to write significant events, artifacts or milestones each on a different index card 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 first individually record their observations and recommendations and later 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. First draft of recommendations and suggestions is then prepared collectively by each affinity group.

Completed project timeline

Exhibit 2 – Completed project timeline.

Emotional Seismography

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.

Emotional seismograph

Exhibit 3 – Emotional seismograph.

Passive Analogy

After thorough discussions using the Project Timeline and Emotional Seismograph, participants are shown a movie having a storyline centered on a concept related to project management. The participants call it a day after watching the movie but assemble the following morning to discuss who among the cast seemed to act like the project manager and which project roles did other cast members play. Discussions are also held about strategies that could have been applied in a better way during the movie's project and what lessons from the movie can be applied on the projects undertaken by the participants' organizations. Some movies which are particularly useful for Passive Analogy are:

  • Flight of the Phoenix
  • Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
  • The Challenger Disaster

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 which they may not have a chance to do during actual projects. This serves to bring individuals closer and heal any relationships which might have gone sour due to project related responsibilities.

Future Shaping

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 its conclusion are also reviewed again. Updates are made if necessary, incorporating the new information discovered as part of review ritual.

Cross Affinity Teams

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.

Celebrity Interviews

Proposed for projects classified as troubled or failed, this technique involves holding an interview of 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 career before embarking on success. The purpose is to make 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 at smaller scales and then document the benefits realized to make a case for wider application of similar strategies.

Conclusion

This paper highlights the shortcomings of the traditional approaches used in Post Project Reviews and advocates an alternative approach which not only makes it fun to perform the reviews, but also ensures more objective outcomes which can be effectively leveraged on future projects. As required on all projects, the reviews carried out using the proposed approach must also have proper closure by assessing the effectiveness of the exercise. The lessons related to the review exercise may be leveraged on future reviews ensuring better outcomes.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas, Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Muhammad Umar Ilyas
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE

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