In the Rearview Mirror
Project Pros Discuss How to Lead a Debriefing Session That Will Deliver Real Business Value
BY KATE ROCKWOOD
Santhosh Nair, PMP, cringes when he remembers how he conducted his first debriefing sessions. He did the bulk of the talking, while team members just sat—mostly silent and disengaged. After distributing notes on the session, he considered the process complete.
“I didn't even implement the lessons learned— just captured and distributed feedback,” says Mr. Nair, who is now a portfolio manager at Dimension Data in Sydney, Australia. “When I think back on those early days, I was probably only conducting the session because it was required.”
After a long haul, project managers and team members might feel the urge to wrap things up so they can move on to the next big thing. But giving short shrift to the debriefing process could shortchange an organization's performance.
Without the help of lessons learned, future teams might repeat past mistakes that jeopardize project success. And projects that fail to deliver on time, on budget and within scope are costly. According to PMI's 2017 Pulse of the Profession: Success Rates Rise: Transforming the high cost of low performance, an average of US$97 million was wasted for every US$1 billion invested in 2016.
Gathering insights gained during a project can help boost performance—but only if the project team commits to the process. While there's no quick fix to make the debriefing process more effective, Mr. Nair has learned to talk less and listen more.
“I've become an active listener, and I make sure those lessons learned are implemented in the next project or program,” he says. “Because if you're not acting upon the team's feedback, it's a waste of everyone's time.”
Here are four ways project managers can run productive post-mortems that will add value to the organization and improve project results.
Santhosh Nair, PMP, Dimension Data, Sydney, Australia
PHOTO BY RYAN LINNEGAR
If the debriefing session isn't planned until the project is coming to a close, half the project team might already be prepping for their next assignments. “Debriefs are easy meetings for team members to scratch at the last second. So we need to block the time early on and make it expected and required from the project initiation. This way, everyone adopts a learning mindset and begins gathering insights in advance,” says Fabiana Vasconcellos Cabral Merino, PMP, senior project manager, Michelin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Michelin is a member of PMI's Global Executive Council.
That explicit early start to the process also cultivates a learning mindset so that team members are continuously scanning for insights to bring to the debriefing—rather than trying to jog their memories retroactively, she says.
Mattias Hallberg, PMP, vice general manager, Rakuten, Tokyo, Japan, recommends including the agenda and expected outcomes in the meeting invitation and limiting the session to one hour. “Knowing the expected outcomes—to celebrate successes, collect lessons learned, decide how to address future challenges—helps team members prepare and brings focus to the meeting from the very start,” he says.
“Debriefs are easy meetings for team members to scratch. … So we need to … make it expected and required from the project initiation.”
—Fabiana Vasconcellos Cabral Merino, PMP, Michelin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Asking attendees to write down feedback ahead of time can also raise the quality of the conversation, says Jeff Amster, PMP, technical program director, Politico, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. He shares a link to a cloud-based spreadsheet about a week before each debriefing meeting so multiple team members can add their thoughts at the same time.
Don't wait until the end of a project to hold a debriefing session, says Jeff Amster, PMP, technical program director, Politico, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. Here's why he believes it's valuable to hold a retrospective after the team reaches each milestone.
If the team has insights on how to improve earlystage processes—such as gathering requirements—debriefing as soon as that phase or agile sprint is closed allows the organization to refine the process and benefit future projects faster.
Team members have a natural tendency to focus most on recent events. Especially on longer-term projects, gathering lessons learned at frequent intervals along the way helps project managers gain more useful feedback about each project phase rather than just the final destination.
When teams see that project, program and portfolio managers are invested in improving processes, it makes them more likely to offer thoughtful feedback. Seeding that collaborative mindset early can bring significant, long-term value to the organization, Mr. Amster says.
2 Don't Play the Blame Game
Spotlighting project missteps can raise the emotional tenor of the conversation—and understandably so. But project managers would be wise to nip any finger-pointing in the bud. “Debriefing sessions must be a safe space where all team members—regardless of rank or seniority—are free to share their open and honest observations. They shouldn't worry that it's going to devolve into the blame game,” says Ms. Vasconcellos Cabral Merino.
“If you're not acting upon the team's feedback, it's a waste of everyone's time.”
—Santhosh Nair, PMP
To limit the scope of the conversation, she writes the meeting's goals on a whiteboard before a debriefing session starts. If communication starts to get off track, she directs attention to the goals and focuses the discussion on why mistakes were made, rather than who was to blame.
If someone struggles to move past a conflict, suggest parking that part of the conversation for an offline discussion, Mr. Nair says. “Those conflicts must be positioned toward the future: how to improve team collaboration or improve communication, rather than dissecting an individual's behavior,” he says.
Breaking the Ice
If the team is offering tepid feedback during a post-mortem, it might mean the questions aren't inspiring, says Katrina Ruth, PMP, clinical program director, Medtronic, Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Two small adjustments can make a big difference, she says.
Avoid open-ended questions, which team members might find too broad and difficult to address, such as:
What went well?
What went wrong?
What should we change?
Emphasize more explicit questions, which can lead to more detailed discussions, such as:
What would you do differently if you could go back in time?
What processes were used that didn't fit the project's needs?
What tools were used that are worth bringing back for other projects?
3 Pass the Mic
Every team member likely has insights and valuable feedback, but don't expect everyone to be equally vocal during a debriefing. To make sure that extroverts don't dominate a session, Mr. Amster adds a column to the meeting spreadsheet where each team member designates their top two preferred discussion topics. The team then focuses on all first-preference items first, ensuring that even the most introverted team members will have their top issue discussed.
“This ensures equal participation and voice throughout the team, prevents one person from running through their shopping list of ideas and builds team confidence as well as positive behaviors in presenting valuable feedback,” Mr. Amster says.
It also helps to have discussion items submitted anonymously—both in pre-session spreadsheets and notes taken during the debriefing. Guaranteed anonymity can mean the difference between real engagement and reluctant participation, says Mr. Hallberg.
“I've been through sessions that felt really constrained because attendees were holding back,” he says. “They didn't want to record their name behind their comments and have those notes disseminated. So I've learned to be clear that we don't write down who said what—on purpose.”
“By escalating feedback … strategic resources such as program managers and directors can identify patterns and make changes consistently across the enterprise.”
—Jeff Amster, PMP, Politico, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA
4 Follow Through
An effective debriefing session ends with broadcasting lessons learned in two directions, Mr. Amster says: down to project team members and up to the project management office, portfolio manager or program manager so that insights can be leveraged across the organization. For instance, when a team noted that the project board they used to track tasks lacked granular detail in one debriefing session, that feedback was shared with Mr. Amster, the program manager. In turn, he shared it with other managers and directors.
“By escalating feedback from retrospectives, strategic resources such as program managers and directors can identify patterns and make changes consistently across the enterprise—resulting in delivery consistency and clear team expectations,” he says.
The entire feedback loop—from post-mortem to action plan to follow-through—helps organizations optimize their processes and deliver better business results, Mr. Nair says. “I understand now that debriefing sessions are a major part of a continuous improvement cycle. They will make team members think, reflect on the past and provide feedback to improve themselves and the organization.” PM