Facilitating a Lessons Learned Session

I believe that nothing is more important to our ability to effectively address our present than understanding the lessons learned from those who have come before us.   - Charlie Gonzalez

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful time with family and friends over the holidays. And I also hope that you had a chance to reflect on how 2015 went for you both personally and professionally.

As you looked back on the year, I am sure there are some things that you want to continue doing in 2016, other things you want to stop doing, and then entirely new things that you want to start doing.

Similarly in the business world, reflecting on what worked well and what did not work well after a project ends is great practice. You can take note of these learnings on your own, but what would be even better is if you could facilitate a lessons learned session with your team. There is really nothing better than voicing the good, the bad, and the ugly about a given project for everyone to hear, acknowledge, understand, and take action on. Otherwise, innovations and successes will be forgotten and mistakes will be repeated.

So what goes into planning and facilitating a lessons learned session? Here are a few notes that I think will help.

  • Set expectations – The point of a lessons learned session is to get a very clear picture about what worked during a project, and what could have been done differently. Stress the importance of being candid, noting that the intent is to help the team or project, not to harm – so anything that is said should be constructive (while still truthful).
  • Invite the right people – Just like any other meeting you plan, you need to have the right people in the room to provide input. You typically would invite your project core team and perhaps some other project stakeholders. You might want to consider not inviting senior leaders so that your stakeholders feel comfortable voicing their opinions openly and honestly.
  • Create (or borrow) a lessons learned template – This template should be simple and to the point, and I suggest using PowerPoint. Start with an introduction slide about what the session is and why it is important, and then follow it with an expectations slide that reiterates how the session will be run. Then finally, add slides to help capture the meat of the discussion – what worked well and what did not work well. 
  • Schedule and facilitate the session – A 90-minute session should be enough time to get good input from people. Review the template slides together, answering any questions the team may have, and then dive in! Open up the dialogue for the team to provide feedback, asking questions and capturing their responses real-time. Try to note down quotes verbatim, and check that what you captured represents the intent of what was said. And do not be alarmed if it takes a bit for the conversation to get going, as people may be a bit shy at first to reveal their true feedback.
  • Send a follow-up asking for any final thoughts – After the session, you will have a PowerPoint filled with notes that you captured during the session. Clean up the notes, if needed, without losing quotes or the intent of the comments, and then email them to the team for one final review. Ask them to confirm that you captured everything correctly and/or whether they have anything else to add.
  • Share the lessons – Once the team confirms that the summary is ready to be shared, bring the feedback to leaders or other stakeholders who would benefit from hearing the information. It is a good practice to have a centralized place to store lessons learned so that they can be pulled and reviewed – by either you or others – in preparation for upcoming projects.

Two more things to note about lessons learned.

First, lessons learned sessions do not happen enough. By the time a project ends, people are moving on to the next project or back to their day jobs. It might be hard to rally the troops and ask for feedback, especially if they see it as a “fluff” exercise that does not add value. As a project manager, it is your role to institute this kind of review and actually utilize the information that is gathered so that people see the value in participating in the first place.

Which brings me to my second point… Make sure you actually use the lessons! Understanding the themes and major roadblocks of a given project will certainly help you succeed when managing future projects. You do not want to reinvent the wheel or run into the same issues if you do not have to!           

Following a recent lessons learned session, a participant told me how happy he was that he had the opportunity to share his thoughts about how things went. He said he was never asked for that kind of feedback, and just the fact that we were looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly gave him confidence that we will be successful on future projects – and have a more open team dialogue along the way.

If that statement is not validation for the session, then I do not know what is!