The project is over. Now what?

Tips to help any project team learn from experience

by Ty Kiisel, @task

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

--Rita Mae Brown, Sudden Death

Although there are times when I question the sanity of working in a project environment, hopefully it isn't because I am beating my head against the wall doing the same things and making the same mistakes project after project. However, I think most organizations don't spend anywhere near enough time at the end of a project to evaluate its successes or failures. A project isn't really over until after the retrospective has been completed.

The essential project management reading list

The increasing pace of change in the workplace makes it more important than ever to take the time to learn from experience. Doing this requires a regular and consistent approach that is often ignored in project environments. Here are a few suggestions to help any project team learn from experience:

Establish a venue for sharing lessons learned: It doesn't matter whether you call it a postmortem, a project review, or a project retrospective. It's a real shame that many project teams move from one project to another without even taking a breath; let alone taking the opportunity to capture lessons learned from the last project. What's more, the time taken to discuss where the completed project was successful or struggled allows team members to contribute to improving the project management process from the grass roots level.

I once worked with a project manager who created an environment where everyone could freely discuss the successes and challenges of every project in a formal meeting once the project was completed. Sometimes it included some pretty frank criticism of how the project was managed. Rather than become upset and retaliate (which could have been a natural reaction), he would take note of the critique and genuinely work to improve himself along with the rest of the team. It was a great example to me of how a competent project manager can become an even more effective project leader.

Share what has been learned: Although most organizations don't bother with a project retrospective, those that do don't always create an environment that encourages learning. If lessons learned are captured and then tucked away in a file somewhere, the lessons are of no value. Not only your own team, but also other teams within the organization can benefit from lessons captured upon completion of a project.

A semi-monthly or quarterly meeting where project managers within the organization can share experiences could be an effective option for sharing what's been learned among project managers. Another option might include capturing lessons learned in a wiki that is shared among all the project teams. Different organizations will need to take the best approach for their group.

Don't make learning the next corporate initiative: It's natural for organizations to try to formalize the learning process. "Corporate" is all too often the same as "bureaucratic," which employees are more likely to avoid. Of course, some could argue that making project learning "regular" and "consistent" might require a formal initiative, but if team members sense that the value of a project retrospective is to simply check off one more box for the executive team, it won't be taken seriously.

Don't make learning a one-time activity: Project learning should be ongoing and interactive. Don't let it become an isolated activity that happens rarely.

Some companies rely on project management software to facilitate project learning. Others use homegrown methods. The important things is to create an environment where project learning can take place.

What does your company do to capture best practices and learn from experience?

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software. Follow Ty on Twitter: @tykiisel

For more project management tips, see:

Project management: Scrapping a doomed project

Project Management: 4 Questions To Ask Before Starting Any Project

Project management: 4 tips for dealing with problem stakeholders

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