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Sharing lessons learned between projects

Agenda for post-project reviewI frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.

I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.

Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.

Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:

1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.

My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.

The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.

What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.

While it is true that

If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.

I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.

What are the implications for me as a facilitator?

I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.

I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.

There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.

And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.

What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ‘sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?

* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009