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The process of capturing The Lessons Learned is often overlooked and forgotten in projects and programs, and in my opinion that’s a mistake. The lessons learned, if done right, is very useful as it tells us what went right and what went wrong. That information isn’t valuable in itself, but when concrete actions of improvement come out of it, then it’s easy to see the value of the lessons learned.
Over the years I’ve seen lessons learned captured in a number of different ways. Like any process, the quality of the lessons learned will depend on the quality of the inputs (garbage in, garbage out), but it is equally about the outputs. For it to be successful, the lessons learned is not about producing a beautiful report, it is about implementing concrete improvement actions, and ensuring these actions are done.
I’d like to describe here the best template I have seen for running a lessons learned meeting to date. The first thing you need to do is gather together a broad representation of stakeholders from all different streams involved with the project or program. This meeting will take about two hours to hold. Make sure you book it well in advance and ask people to prioritize attendance to ensure a good turnout.
Note that to run this meeting you are going to need lots of post-its, marker pens, and some colored stickers – all will be explained later. Assuming you’ve done the above and introduced the purpose of the meeting to everyone in attendance, here is the best template I know to structure the lessons learned meeting:
RED = something that went bad
BLUE = something that went well
GREEN = something that surprised us
PURPLE = something that confused us
Obviously each sticker represents an emotion, so now you ask the participants to place their colored stickers against the events on the timeline according to how the event made them feel. They will need to use their stickers sparingly as they only have 5 stickers of each color. Allow 20 minutes for this exercise in total.
In this step we want to mine the data collected. Start to walk through the timeline in chronological order stopping to discuss any post-its with several or more stickers on them. You will inevitably encounter lots of post-its with different colors stuck to them, so discuss with the group what caused them to attach different colors to these particular post-its.
It is my experience that some lively debate often occurs during this phase, and it is your job as the facilitator to ensure that notes are kept on the post-its that are discussed, including the key points in the discussion and the root cause of the post-it being highlighted if it is touched upon. Aim to keep this section to 30 minutes. It is typical during this phase to spend lots of time discussing things which went badly or confused people. You job as facilitator is to encourage the group to also discuss those things which went well.
Collect all the discussed post-its into one place where everyone can see them. Then ask the participants to write down “what to keep” and “what to change” from the project, along with assigning owners to these actions. They should write down one suggestion per post-it. Now ask them to place them all on the wall in priority order (they will need to agree the priority amongst themselves), removing any duplicates. Allow 20 minutes for this exercise, leaving you 10 minutes to thank them and close the meeting.
From the lessons learned meeting, in just 2 hours you will have achieved many things:
It is a good idea to distribute all of this information back to the group immediately after the meeting whilst it’s still fresh in your mind.
As I stated previously, this is the best template I know to run a lessons learned meeting. However, the most important part is to follow up the actions agreed at the end of the meeting to ensure they are done. This will ensure the next project or program runs more smoothly. One way to do this might be to check the actions have been completed as one of the first steps in your next project.
If you’ve been running a really large project or program with hundreds of people involved, clearly it’s not feasible to get everyone in the same room, and it’s a good idea to have each stream lead run the above meeting with their team allowing you to consolidate and distribute the results.
Good luck using the template described above to run your next lessons learned meeting– let me know how it works out!
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