What's the best way to capture lessons learned?

What's the best way to capture lessons learned to ensure we get meaningful information that will really get used rather than just making people feel bad?
Capturing lessons learned at the end of a project or at an interim point is a great way to allow everyone to share experiences and opinions on what has worked and where things should be done differently. The options to collect that information are not novel, but the results achieved can vary widely. How the information is requested, and the team's mindset about providing it, will determine whether you get frank, detailed feedback or vague, limited feedback.

Soliciting input via email using general requests for feedback may yield limited results. Everyone is burdened with too much to do and not enough time. A vague "how do you think this project went" email could easily be given a low priority, or result in equally value or scattered feedback. In addition, this one-way conversation doesn't allow for easy clarification or obtaining additional information. Here are a few suggestions for getting good lessons learned input via email or meetings.

Send an email survey with very specific questions about the project. Do they think the scope was well defined? Did they have everything they needed to get their work done? If not, what was missing? See our Lessons Learned Survey for an example.

There is a plethora of web-based survey tools out there that can be used to set up these questions and send out a link to the survey. However, this may not be the best way to get maximum participation. Consider using the approach in our Lessons Learned Survey, where all the questions are in the email(not as an attachment) and the recipient can just hit Reply, fill in their answers, and shoot it off. This is more convenient; it removes a step for the person to take, and the nature of the detailed and very pointed questions about the project may draw them in. Their chance to vent, suggest, etc. is right there in the email text, just begging them to answer.

If you choose to do an email survey, consider options for allowing the response to be anonymous. If you use a survey tool, that is taken care of automatically. If the questions go right into the email and people are supposed to reply with their answers, they must know and believe that the project manager receiving the replies will treat the answers confidentially. Part of the PM's job is to consolidate all the information into an anonymous summary.

The best way to get rich lessons learned info is to get the team together in a lessons learned meeting. Some groups call these "post-mortems" (not a great connotation). Others call them "project retrospectives." A survey like the one linked above can be done beforehand to ferret out big problem areas that should get covered in the meeting, but it's not mandatory to do both a survey and a meeting. Some teams find that using the survey encourages quieter team members to have their say in a way they wouldn't in front of the whole team. It's up to you and your team.

Lessons learned meetings need to be held in an environment of openness where the focus is on information gathering, not blaming. Many individuals will be hesitant to participate if they see this as an exercise in pointing fingers and assigning blame for things that didn't turn out well. You need to be aware of this before and during the meeting, and be quick to squelch that sort of discussion should it begin. Establish the meeting agenda and ground rules using our Lessons Learned Meeting Agenda. It includes guidelines on how to run the meeting to make sure everyone contributes ideas, so that no one person vents and hogs the meeting, and so the information is captured factually. What went well? What things did the team do that they think should be done in the same way next time, and even recommended to other teams? What things didn't go well? What problems were encountered that should be avoided or would prompt the team to do something differently next time? Capture the input in a brainstorm fashion—on flip chart paper on the walls, for example—to keep the meeting moving fast and feeling alive. Then step back and look at all the things listed as "wins" and "challenges" and come up with recommendations as to exactly how things should go next time. Finally, create a summary report, especially highlighting what the team feels were the most important lessons and recommendations. See one possible report format in our Lessons Learned Meeting Report. And make sure the report is made available to other project managers for their use. It's no good capturing lessons learned if it doesn't do anyone else any good!

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