And you prefer watching and listening to reading, I have done a video that covers most of the content of this article. Watch the video, and then scan the article for the extra details.
What is a Lessons Learned (LL) Meeting?
First and foremost, a lessons learned meeting is a safe place to share thinking and insights about a shared experience. And that will feature strongly as my first, primary, and principal reason for holding an LL review.
It is a meeting where you look back on the last stage of your project – or, indeed, your whole project.
In your review, you’ll draw lessons for the next stage or your next project. So, you’ll need to cover:
Successes This should come top of your list. If you focus too much on the negatives, you run the risk of damaging morale. That isn’t to say you should brush those under the carpet. Absolutely not.
Failings and unintended consequences You must also look at what didn’t work. But do so with a spirit of curiosity to better understand them. It is not a place for recriminations or blame. Things will go wrong. And, if anyone was at fault, I hope you will have dealt with that at the time.
Trace Cause and Effect This is the principal way you will understand how actions lead to consequences, and so draw lessons from the events above. Please be aware that projects can be complex. So the metaphor of a chain of causes and effects is a poor one. Far better is the metaphor of a web of many causes and many effects. Don’t stop your analysis too soon, in the hope of finding simple answers.
Recommendations Ultimately, as we’ll see in the next section, a lessons learned meeting should be a catalyst for change. So, what changes do you recommend, having done your analysis?
Why do You Need Lessons Learned Meetings?
My number one reason for holding lessons learned meetings has very little to do with the project or the organization. It has everything to do with you and your project team.
By taking time to reflect together on your experiences and how your choices led to outcomes, you create learning, development, growth… And, ultimately, wisdom. This is the way professionals develop and so, for me, your LL Meeting is your most effective Continuing Professional Development (CPD) practice.
However, we can also sum up the purpose of a lessons learned meeting as being to drive change. We want to drive change, in:
your project practices, and those of your immediate colleagues
the practices of other Project Managers in your organization
the organization itself – its processes, attitudes, and governance, for example
And, of course, you want to catalyze personal change in individuals; their:
When Should You Hold a Lessons Learned Meeting?
There are two main times you should hold a Lessons Learned meeting; and sometimes a third.
End of your project At the end of a project to crystallize the impact of all your collective experiences. Always do this.
Middle – during your project During your project, at regular team meetings, or at key points like stage boundaries. The more often you draw lessons and implement changes, the better your project will perform. So, your target should be to approach continuous improvement, or Kaizen. Do this on any but the shortest projects.
Start of your project There is often a case to be made for gathering your team at the start of your project, to review lessons learned that can feed into this project. Do this whenever you can. Two primary sources will help you:
The experiences team members have had on previous projects
Lessons learned recorded within your organization; particularly those which refer to projects with similarities to yours
Preparation for Your Lessons Learned Meeting
As you’d expect, I always recommend project managers to prepare for important meetings, and here is a stark example. The four areas to focus your preparation are:
Input data and information, that will inform your discussions and provide evidence to support or challenge perceptions
An agenda that ensures you spend your time together well
Logistics, so you can be sure to create the best starting conditions for your meeting
Attendance, because having the right people there will give a better result than otherwise
We’ll look at these one at a time.
Before your meeting, gather as much data as you can. This may include:
Feedback and survey results
Please though, do review it before the meeting. It is wise to have all this data available, but wiser still to plan only to present a carefully chosen selection.
Do also consider doing a survey of team members for their individual Lessons Learned in advance of the meeting. This will allow you to get a fair amount of analysis done before the meeting. Therefore, you will save more of your valuable meeting time for discussion. Here are some simple tools you can use:
But, for a small project, you can simply email people and ask someone to collate the responses.
Set Your Agenda
You want to keep your lessons learned meeting structured and focused. We’ll look at how to structure it two major sections down.
Now for place and time…
Find a Suitable Venue
You want somewhere comfortable, with plenty of whiteboards/flipcharts. And do bring plenty of stationery supplies:
Consider holding the meeting off-site. Remote conferencing is not ideal – hold it live if you can, but if not, find the best video conferencing tools you can, and, crucially:
Always test and practice using the conferencing tools, before your meeting
Also think about hospitality. It helps to helps relax people and so encourages them to contribute more freely. This also means you’ll need to allow plenty of time, which brings us neatly to…
Set the time
During your project, lessons learned meetings typically fall either at key points in your project, or at regular project team meetings. But, for post-project reviews, schedule them as soon as possible, while memories are fresh.
By the way, most people think more clearly in the morning, so a morning meeting is ideal. But leave time for people to attend to urgent matters before the meeting starts.
Invite your team. Ideally, you will invite anyone who has had a substantial involvement in the project. But, numbers may make this impractical.
So, if my team is too large for an all-hands lessons learned review:
My less-favored approach is to invite a cross-section of my wider team, with every area represented.
The approach I prefer is for work-stream leads to run their own work-stream lessons learned meetings, and then send representatives to the ‘whole project’ LL meeting.
There are two key roles to determine:
Facilitator (who may not be a part of the project) This is the person who will conduct and moderate the discussion. They will be responsible for the process and the outcomes.
Rapporteur This is the person who will record the discussion and document the conclusions. They would usually take responsibility for drafting any Lessons Learned report that flows from the meeting.
Your Primary Lessons Learned Success Criteria
In the next section, we will review the structure for a successful lessons learned meeting. Before we do that, here are my four primary success factors; the things you need to do to maximise your chances of success.
Plan and prepare I think we’ve covered that, above.
Focus Keep your meeting on agenda, and guillotine circular and off-topic discussions.
Contributions Together, we’re smarter than any one of us. So, make sure you involve everyone – especially the quieter, less assertive members of your team. This will necessarily mean quieting down the contributions of your ‘big talkers’.
Growth Your lessons learned meeting is about helping people to grow professionally and develop greater self-confidence and knowledge. So do not allow the meeting to talk of blame and fault. Stick to understanding, actions, and choices: not personalities. And absolutely stamp out any ad hominem attacks – that is, attacks on people, rather than challenges to their opinions or actions.
How to Structure Your Lessons Learned Meeting
Now it’s time to look at the structure for your meeting. I’ll keep to a simple four stages:
Discussion and exploration
Learn More about Meetings
OnlinePMCourses has a sister Channel on YouTube called Management Courses. This offers structure Management training courses as playlists of free YouTube videos. One of our programs is Meetings. Do take a look at the Meetings playlist.
Opening Your Meeting
It makes sense to set the scene with some basic ground rules. But my preference is to avoid that term or say anything that gives the impression that we’re ‘at school’.
Here are some of the things I’d want to cover in an opening round:
First of all, if people don’t all know one another, do a round of introductions. Some like to make this engaging with a ‘fun fact’: others prefer to keep it simple with just a name and role.
State the purpose of the meeting. This will be around learning and improvement, so encouragepeople to be open to sharing. Also, use this slot to address the need to avoid any criticism of people.
But for our purposes here, let’s just briefly survey a few of the most valuable tools, which project managers commonly use in this kind of meeting.
The first set of tools helps in gathering ideas, opinions, and commentary.
Use Round-robin approach to ensure everyone has a say This means, simply, going around the room and asking each person in turn. It is a simple, effective way to ensure everyone makes their contribution. If someone has nothing to add, let them say so.
For a big team, try a Brain-writing approach In this approach,everyone puts their ideas onto a card – one idea per card. In a second round, people pick up random cards, read them, and add their commentary. This can go into multiple rounds and allows a very large group to operate in parallel to generate and assess a lot of ideas in a short time.
Mad, Sad, Glad, Add Put up blank posters labeled: Mad, Sad, Glad, and Add. Everyone creates sticky notes with their ideas for what:
Makes them angry and they want to stop
Upsets them and they want to stop
Pleases them and they want to continue or do more
They noted was missing and they want to continue
A similar approach is Stop, Start, Continue
Open and probing questions Good questions are at the heart of effective facilitation. Use open questions to elicit ideas, and probing questions to refine them, understand them, and test them out.
Meeting Facilitation Questions
The two primary questions for gathering input are:
What can we learn from what went well? (Or what went well, and what can we learn from that?
What can we learn from the things that did not go well? (Or what went badly, and what can we learn from that?)
When we later come to tools for summarising and prioritizing, the primary questions for eliciting summary conclusions are:
would we do the same next time?
would we do differently next time?
does the wider organization need to know and do?
Example Facilitation Questions
We recommend you prepare a small number of carefully chosen questions. If you ask too many, the same things will come up over and over again. Chose the questions you think have the best chance to surface the most important points quickly and positively.
Open, Starting Questions
To what extent were the project goals and objectives attained?
And then let’s explore the big outcomes from your project. What…
was your schedule performance?
was your budget performance?
went well? Provide examples of successes that happened during or because of the project
didn’t go well? Discuss unintended outcomes that happened during or because of the project
might have been better handled if done differently?
would you recommend to others who might be involved in future projects of a similar type?
obstacles got in your way?
was beyond your control?
surprised you on the project that were not planned?
did you anticipate happening that did not happen?
mistakes did you successfully avoid making?
could you automate or simplify that you do repetitively?
skills did you need that were missing on this project?
Probing Follow-up Questions
Now let’s probe into the different areas you can make things even better next time. So, how…
effectively did you identify, bring-in, and deploy your project resources?
well did we define roles and responsibilities?
well did you plan the project?
effectively did you engage with stakeholders?
did your project communications work?
effective was governance?
did the PM lead the team?
well did our risk and issue management work?
effectively did you work together as a team?
effective was the way you integrated the project into the host environment?
well did you handle the soft change aspects of our project?
robust was your testing regime?
What can you do next time to improve your…
project communications and reporting
problem-solving and issue management
planning, scheduling, and schedule management
budgeting and cost management
pilot or prototype process
quality design, control, and assurance
testing and remediation
Coming to Conclusions
Here is my two favorite process for sorting and prioritizing your ideas.
Affinity Mapping This involves placing all the ideas on a chart and then clustering or linking those that are similar or related. It’s a way of reducing a huge number of detailed lessons into a smaller number of big lesson themes.
Consensus tools to prioritize your ideas Always do this after you have grouped and reduced the ideas, or it will not produce good results. Use one of these techniques to prioritize:
Sticker voting Give everyone from 3 to 10 small stickers and ask them to use them to indicate their top priorities. A variant is to allow more than one sticker on a person’s top priorities. In this case, they’ll need 5-10 each. Or just give them one to five stickers and ask them to indicate their top picks. Small colored sticky dots work well.
Forced ranking Ask people to put their top three or top five ideas in order, and assign points (say 5 pts for #1, 2 pts for #2, and 1 pt for #3). Think through a suitable scoring method before you facilitate the session.
Lessons Learned Meeting Outcomes
There are four outcomes your Lessons Learned meeting should be aiming for:
Enhancing the professional experience, expertise, competence, and confidence of those attending
Beneficial recommendations for future projects that you, your colleagues, or your organization will undertake
Setting up the knowledge to avoid problems for these future projects
Establishing good practices for your wider organization
This might sound a bit ‘meta’ (turtles standing on bigger turtles)… After you’ve carried out your Lessons Learned review, take some time to reflect on it (maybe with one or two close colleagues). What did you learn from the process, and how can you improve it next time?
Lessons Learned Meeting Follow-up
The last step for any meeting is the follow-up. And it’s every bit as important as the meeting itself. So, you’ll need to:
Document your lessons learned. Include:
Good practice recommendations
Don’t forget to emphasize the positives
Circulate your document to the team.
Follow-up on actions that you allocated at the end of the meeting.
Brief your sponsor and the governance tier of your project.
Also, circulate it more widely And add to our organization’s internal Project Management Body of Knowledge. You may want to recommend or make changes to processes, tools, or templates.
Speak with, and share what you’ve learned with, other Project Managers. Not only does this help disseminate good ideas; but it also helps embed the learning in your mind.
Look for opportunities to present your lessons learned in meetings within and outside your organization. In the latter case, if you are outside your organization, do be careful to anonymize information and ensure that nothing you say breaches confidentiality or data protection guidelines and good practices.
A Simple Lessons Learned Maturity Model
Our purpose in this article has been to give you a guide about how to conduct a good Lessons Learned Meeting. So a full discussion of the different ways they can feature in an organization’s process is well-outside of our scope.
But I would like to end with a short overview of the different levels of maturity that organizations show, in the way they approach Lessons Learned. It’s a simple five-level model, and I hope it may point your way to ‘where next?’ for you and your organization.
Level zero (Failing)
Organizations don’t hold lessons learned meetings, and they don’t learn lessons. As a result, they constantly repeat the mistakes of the past. D’oh!
Level 1 (Ad hoc)
Organizations hold ad hoc lessons learned meetings, often figuring out the process afresh each time. The resulting lessons learned partially affect future actions.
Level 2 (Good)
Organizations have a defined process for holding lessons learned reviews. They execute them regularly, and Lessons Learned are stored and disseminated throughout the organization. There is accountability to ensure that people act on their recommendations.
Level 3 (Very Good)
Here, we see systemic use of lessons learned for continuous organizational improvement.
Level 4 (Fully Mature)
Lessons Learned feed into organizational governance and reporting. The organization develops robust dashboards and metrics to draw on and track the impact of their learning.
What is your experience of Lessons Learned Meetings?
I’d love to hear your experiences and opinions. Come to think of it, I’d also love to read about your biggest lessons learned! If you share them in the comments section below, I will be sure to respond.
My Lessons Learned
If you are interested in my lessons learned, we have two articles that discuss these.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.