You know that projects need governance, but where do project reviews and lessons learned fit in? And what’s the difference between them? They both take a project and review what’s happened on it with the objective of coming up with a written report for next steps.
In this article we look at the differences between project reviews and lessons learned. In short, it’s all about governance. Let’s take a look.
First, let’s define project reviews. Think of them as like a health check for your project. It’s an opportunity to review the processes of project management more than the deliverables of the project. It helps identify if there are places in the project where the project manager or team have deviated from the normal processes or methods, and to explain and justify why that was the case. There might be useful improvements to be made because of what they had done, or the deviation may have been an oversight – or at worst, a costly mistake.
So your project review is an internal audit-style check up of what’s going on. It produces a documented output with suggestions of how things could be improved on the project and what would be beneficial for the business. It may also suggest remedial action if something has been noted that shouldn’t be happening.
Project reviews can be done at any time during the project, and generally it’s a one-off exercise. There might be cause to review again after a set period, especially if there is concern raised that the process aren’t adequate or project team are struggling in some way. A follow up review is a chance to see what has changed and to check that recommendations have been put into practice.
There is a focus on governance, compliance to standards and processes and control. While a good project review should ultimately support the project manager and team, it is an opportunity to uncover and correct poor practice. It’s not a blame situation or a witch hunt, and you can carry out a project review on a project that everyone thinks is going extremely well.
In short, it’s a governance process with the business’ objectives at heart.
Project reviews are carried out by the PMO team.
In contrast to project reviews, lessons learned meetings can be carried about by anyone. It’s often the project manager who facilitates the session, although it can be a lot easier if there is someone external who runs the meeting. This gives the project manager time to contribute fully without the overhead of having to run the conversation, deal with conflict and take notes all at the same time. The external facilitator in the room could be another project manager or a PMO team member, or anyone with some experience of running sessions like that.
Lessons learned meetings are typically held at the end of the project, but there is a growing expectation from leaders that the post-mortem approach isn’t effective. Agile teams will continually review their performance through sprint retrospectives, and non-Agile teams are increasingly doing the same. Shorter lessons learned meetings are built into the project plan at key points on a regular basis. Team members should be encouraged to raise lessons learned whenever there is something to learn.
All of this is demonstrating a positive trend towards capturing lessons learned in real time with the objective of doing something about it ‘right here, right now’. The benefit of that is that the current project benefits from the change – not future projects. Where you can, lessons learned should be truly learned and implemented as soon as possible.
Lessons learned sessions in the traditional sense do tend to focus on the business outcomes and deliverables more so than the process, but a good facilitator should also make sure that the process of achieving those deliverables is covered. This is the more useful part, in all honesty, because those deliverables might not be ever made again. The change management process, however, will be used on every project, so it’s definitely worth unpicking that.
While lessons learned meetings can be incredibly formal, they can also be informal to the point that they are a ten-minute discussion at the end of every team meeting. Lessons learned should be captured formally somehow, ideally in a format that is searchable so that the organizational knowledge earned during this project is not lost for future project teams.
Both project reviews and lessons learned sessions have something in common: they look forward to the future and force people to think about how things can be improved. The idea with both meetings is to glean useful information that will change how this project or other projects are run, with the overall objective of making them better (faster, smoother, cheaper – however you define “better” in your organization).
The output of both sessions is used by project managers and project teams to reflect on what has happened and proactively do something different going forward.
And both project reviews and lessons learned are only useful if the people involved take onboard the feedback and act on it. Nothing changes if the output is simply put in a drawer and forgotten about.
Not every project will have a project review, but every project should have a lessons learned discussion at some point, and preferably, at multiple points. Both reviews and lessons learned have a place in project governance, and they are both incredibly useful. Choose the right one for the right purpose and you’ll be able to actively support your project teams.