Friday, October 16, 2015

Debrief at the End of Each Project

Making mistakes during a project, although sometimes painful, can be valuable as long as we learn from them. The same can be said for the project successes. More than a casual conversation about what did and didn’t work, a debriefing digs into why things happened, and can help accelerate progress on future projects.
Not all failures are bad. Some of them are actually good because of the valuable learning opportunities they present. Dividing your project's failures into categories will help you distinguish the good, useful failures from the bad, useless ones. In turn, you can be prepared to deal with them and learn from them:
  • Preventable failures. These are caused by inadequate training, inattention to task details, or lack of skills and ability. They’re typically easy to diagnose and fix. Using a robust checklist at the very beginning of a project is a good tool to identify potential points of failure.
  • Unavoidable failures. Every project has built-in uncertainty of tasks and work effort. Projects that are very complex, have tight timelines or involve high risk will have an increased opportunity for unavoidable failures. Good project due diligence at the start of a project will mitigate most failures. Have a plan to triage such events, and even add some time into your project plan to deal with these should they arise. However, accept that some failure is possible and may not be avoided.

What is a Debriefing?
Start by talking with your team about why a debriefing is important. Maybe you want to improve for the next time, or you want to analyze a unique situation that arose. Perhaps you hope to capitalize on your strengths or learn from mistakes. Others may want to continuously learn and improve.

What to Ask When You Debrief
  • What were we trying to accomplish? Every debriefing should start by restating the objectives you were trying to hit. The project team should have agreed on clear objectives prior to taking action in the first place. If the objectives were not clear, the rest of the debriefing will be of little value because you won’t know how to judge your success.
  • Where did we hit and miss our objectives? With clear objectives, you can clearly identify if you did or didn’t hit them. Review your results, and ensure the group is aligned.
  • What caused our results? This is the "root-cause analysis" step for your successes and failures. It should go deeper than obvious, first-level answers to missed objectives. Don’t be satisfied with answers like, "We needed more time". Keep digging and ask why you needed more time. For example, it may be the time was adequate if the project team had a different skill set.
  • What should we start, stop, or continue doing? Given you uncover the root causes, determine what you should do next now that you know what you know.
Make sure you capture lessons learned in a usable format for later use. At a minimum, take notes and distribute them to the project team members. In addition, make the information readily available to other project teams or even to a broader organizational audience. In the end, you may find the most successful process changes are the easiest to implement.

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David Schuchman

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