Learning lessons about lessons learned

Well I am back at my desk today after a full day of workshops in Melbourne.

I wanted to share the approach we have recently undertaken in identifying lessons learned from a major project we have been delivering for the last 7 years.

During this time we had over 250 people work on the project so we took a hybrid approach which I had developed in a ‘previous life’.

We decided to survey all participants asking ethnographic questions. The questions came in different forms but all looking at the same outcome – capturing anecdotal fragments.

Questions went something like this:

  • You find yourself at the first Friday drinks and you are approached by a close colleague who you have worked with many times before. They tell you they have been asked to work on similar project to [Project X] and ask you for advice.
    • What are some of your experiences you would tell them about that would encourage them to join the project?
    • What would you tell them about that would discourage them?
  • You have been asked by a Proposal Leader to join in a workshop for a bid we are putting together for a similar project to [Project X].
    • What successes did you experience on the project that you would share?
    • What challenges did you face on the project that you would share?
  • A new project is undertaking some planning workshops and you have been invited to come along and share your experiences.
    • What would you recommend we stop doing on Projects?
    • What should we start doing on Projects?
    • What should we continue to do on Projects?
  • What are some of the key technical and procedural innovations we developed on [Project X]?
  • If you could go back and change one thing on [Project X], what would it be?

We had 66 people participate from a sample of 250. From this we collected about 300 fragments.

We have also interviewed several leaders from the project asking them similar questions to the survey and adding their responses to the mix.

We then took these fragments and undertook a sense making activity to identify themes to then hold more focussed face-to-face workshops. The sense making was undertaken by a a group of people with diverse areas of expertise and had no involvement with the Project itself. The reason for using people who had not been involved on the project was that during the interviews we had observed some dismissive behaviours where people denied certain perspectives because “they didn’t know the real story”.

Four distinct themes emerged from the sense making exercise:

  1. Project Management capability and practice
  2. Design Management practice and procedures
  3. Leadership and Decision Making
  4. Project Culture

We decided running workshops on the first three and then touch on culture in each workshop.

We then talked with the project sponsor and leader about who the right people would be to have in the room. We decided to have three 2 hour workshops in the one day as an initial pass and see what we would uncover to follow up on.

In order to get at least 10-20 people in the room we invited 40 people to the workshops. There was some initial hesitation from the sponsor on inviting so many people but after sharing our experience with running these sorts of workshops and having only a third accept and then having last minute drop outs, they agreed to see what happened. Sure enough we had 14 people accept invitations and 3 people pull out the day before the workshops.

We gave people the opportunity to attend one or more workshops and had consistent turnout across the three workshops to have diversity of fields, expertise, seniority and age.

We ran each session as a 90 minute anecdote circle with conversation mapping on a projector (mind map) followed by a 30 minute breakout session working on actions and communications plans on what was discussed.

We opened with introductions, learning peoples expectations and outlined what a lessons learned exercise is.

We then laid some ground rules which put us in good stead:

  • No rank
  • Safe environment
  • No blame, no repercussions
  • Open, honest, adult, professional discussion
  • Learning focus
  • Values based conduct, respect others

We also used some points to manage expectations around conflict management:

  • People have different perspectives
  • There is no right or wrong, there is only diversity
  • Listen and respect other peoples perspectives
  • Learn why they are different
  • Don’t take things personally

This set us up well. We came across various perspectives of what had been happening. There were some epiphanies and the best thing I observed in the workshop was the most senior leader in the room setting a fantastic example by sharing his perspective that he had been involved in some decisions that proved to be have made things worse and he approached it as something he has learnt and changed the way he now makes decisions.

The questions we asked worked best with the audience when we couched them like “What advice would you give to someone else about to do one of these?”.

So the collection and analysis has been undertaken. Now it’s time to plan action.

We talk with people in the business about Lessons Learned Exercises (not just workshops) providing two things:

  • Actions – Things that need to be improved or changed like policies, procedures and processes. This links to our quality management area and our business systems.
  • Advice – Tips and advice you can give to someone in your position that can minimise risk and give them a better chance of success. This links to our risk management approach and communication through various channels including our Communities of Practice.

So now to working on Improvement requests and change management strategies.

Wish us luck.



3 thoughts on “Learning lessons about lessons learned

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-02-09 « Ex Orbite

  2. Wow, comprehensive after action review. I blogged about a very simple one called 2-5-1 that you might find interesting for projects <7 years: http://bit.ly/4CJo8W

    Would love to have you moderate a #KMers chat sometime on AAR. Visit at http://KMers.org and let me know if you would like to get on the schedule.

    All the best,,
    @swanwick on Twitter

    • Swan,

      It has been fairly comprehensive as it was a extra large project in many scales (nine figure budget over 4 years with over 300 of our staff involved at one time of another).

      What’s more this was a world first in the bringing together of several technologies to treat water that had previously been considered untreatable.

      Also we had only been engaged at the end of the project so there was a lot of ground to cover.

      I have met Karuna when I visited the KM Singapore conference last year (2009). The simple format is a good format extending the AAR format developed by the US Army.

      Happy to moderate a discussion through KMers.org but I am still tryign to figure out ‘where’ the KMers chats take place. I have seen some action on twitter and on wave but not sure how it all fits together.



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