Judging from the number of requests I’ve gotten for lessons learned templates it would seem to me that there is a big movement toward actually conducting lessons learned sessions at the end of projects on a regular basis. I find that interesting because it’s one of those things that all project managers know they should do, but often overlook. The project ends and team members need to quickly move on to other projects. Going back and rehashing the good and the bad about the project in a post mortem session seems unproductive. In fact, even getting your senior management to respect the practice and allow that expense of time, effort, and resources is sometimes quite a challenge.

The first step in conducting a productive and meaningful lessons learned session is accepting the fact that it is useful. From there, follow these five easy steps that will actually last throughout the project engagement…

Start with the project schedule

Since the first step in conducting a productive and meaningful lessons learned session at the end of the project is to first accept that it is useful, you must also then plan for it. And by plan for it I mean put it in the project schedule. Put a placeholder in the project schedule sometime after deployment – likely approximately two weeks following rollout – and enter the prep and meeting tasks necessary to conduct the lessons learned session or sessions. Include the resources and the necessary effort/time so that you ensure your resources are booked for it on the project and so that you’ll be able to regroup them for this effort when the time comes. This may take some negotiation with department managers and your senior management because they may not see this effort and expenditure as a necessary part of the project. You may have to sell them on it.

Make it an on-going effort

Ideally, the lessons learned effort would not just be an end-of-the-project task. Keeping an on-going list of lessons learned during the project will help you, your team, and the customer to be even better prepared for a more meaningful and productive lessons learned session at the end of the engagement. Think of it in terms of filing out your weekly timesheet. If you worked 50 hours during the week but wait until Friday (or worse, the following Monday) to complete you timesheet, you’re going to have to ‘make up’ what you did for 5-10 of those hours because you’ll never remember all of them. But if you complete a daily timesheet, then your project time charges will be accurate when you finally complete your timesheet on Friday. The same holds true with documenting learning experiences throughout the engagement. You’ll have a much better knowledge base to move forward with if you diligently document those lessons learned during the project for discussion during that final session.

Call for preparation

As deployment time nears, remind everyone of the upcoming lessons learned session and finalize a date, time, and place for the meeting or meetings. Distribute what you’ve collected throughout the project as a starting point and encourage the rest of the team members and the customer to be proactively working on their lists to ensure the most productive session possible. Reminding everyone of the need for this session and scheduling it early also helps ensure that attendance and participation will be high – you need to be sure you have secured team members’ availability before you lose them to other projects.

Conduct the formal session

Likely you can perform the lessons learned session in one meeting – especially if people come somewhat prepared. The project manager needs to act as the primary lead and facilitator of this meeting. Things to remember when leading lessons learned discussions:

• Be positive• Do not place blame• Focus on successes as well as failures• Indicate which strategies contributed to success• Indicate which improvement strategies would have the greatest impact

It is also the project manager’s responsibility to be the primary documenter of information that comes out of these discussions. Preferably, a formal template should be prepared or obtained to ensure that information is captured in an orderly and organized format.

Disseminate the information

Finally, within a few days of the actually session, all information discussed and documented during the meeting should be distributed to all members for final review and comments. It’s critical that the project manager get final concurrence to ensure that all information has been accurately recorded. Once approved by all, a formal version of the lessons learned findings should be distributed to all project team members and to whatever central knowledgebase your company uses for capturing formal lessons learned data from engagements.