Life is about continuously learning. We sometimes learn from our mistakes, and we can also learn from our successes. This was first brought to my attention early on in my career. After the successful completion of a tough project, we had a meeting with our team leader where we were questioned on both what had we done well and how could the project have gone smoother. Today, in the international automotive company where I work as an InCorporate Trainer training business English, Lessons Learned meetings are an integral part of any project.
What happens in a “lessons learned” meeting?
Like my team leader a long time ago, the project managers I train are convinced that, after any project, it is important to reflect on what could be learned from the experience. Annette, a manager who regularly uses me for on-the-job training explained that “For us the lessons learned meeting is especially important if the project was deemed to be a success. In this way, best practices are identified and flow into subsequent projects. And feelings of complacency can be avoided. At the same time, it is important to understand what stood in the way of a project being even more successful. It doesn’t really matter how successful a project is, there is always room for improvement.”
She then went on to explain how her project team has time to consider their performance as well as that of the team as a whole, And that in new teams, or established teams with new members, this was typically tough the first few times “I do see pushback from new colleagues for various reasons, despite how obviously important these meetings may be. Some people feel there is no reason to speak about the past since we cannot go back and change things. Other times people may feel that it isn’t good to talk too much about the past but to focus on the future. My goal as the team’s leader is to show that being open about one’s mistakes allows others to learn from them! In German this is not easy but when we all do it in English we see that things are harder ”
Use we to be tough on the mistakes, but not on the individuals
Most of us don’t enjoy talking about our mistakes, and when discussing mistakes it is important to be both accurate and respectful. One way to do this is by asking questions using the collective “we” rather than assigning specific blame. After all, you are a team!
- If we hadn’t worked overtime, we wouldn’t have finished within the deadline.
- We should have received that information earlier.
- If we had known that from the beginning, we would have done things much differently
- We wouldn’t have had so many problems if we had communicated better.
- We could have saved a lot of money if we had identified the problem earlier.
Ask the right questions to ensure future improvement
Another way of discussing mistakes is to use hypotheticals. These sentences help to make things less personal and more abstract. With this style of question, a hypothetical cause and effect in the past is identified and applied to future situations; a “What if…” style of identifying areas for potential improvement.
- What if we made some adjustments in our future labor projections?
- What if we ensured more timely delivery for our next project? How could we fulfill such a promise?
- What if we were informed sooner? How would that have affected the delivery date?
- What if we could improve our internal communication structure? How are some ways we could do this?
- What would have been the outcome if we had identified the problem sooner?
Use success as a driver for learning
As mentioned above, we can also learn from our successes. So what questions could we and should we be asking ourselves to ensure our successes continue on to future projects? Here are some useful examples for your next “lessons learned” meeting…
- Was our success unique to this project, or is it something we could replicate for future projects?
- What surprises did our team handle well, and how could we build off of that to prepare for other unexpected outcomes in the future?
- How could we re-formulate our achieved goals to really push the team to perform better?
- What value did our individual team members bring to the project?
- How can we increase our level of commitment and urgency?
Implementing lessons learned meetings into your projects leads to team members growing in confidence, and an increase in performance and outcomes. Being aware of the impact language can have will help, as can facilitation skills , and building trust and a willingness to allow constructive conflicts in your team. Finally, there’s an excellent lessons learned template on Brad Egeland’s blog. Cornell University has a good overview of approaches and questions to use, and the University of Pennsylvania offers a lessons-learned checklists to help lead discussions.
If you have any recommendations or would like to tell us about your experiences with lessons learned meetings, please feel free to do so below in the comments section.