Ask These 4 Questions at Your Next Project Debrief

career pm pmo project management May 02, 2022
Ask These 4 Questions at Your Next Project Debrief

The Blue Angels airshow is an example of aviation precision and excellence. Despite what appears to be flawless execution, mistakes occur during every show. Even the smallest mistake could be disastrous when you are flying three feet apart at hundreds of miles per hour. 

That’s why the Blue Angels pilots debrief after each practice or show, with the objective to improve the performance of the entire team. They come together in a private room for a frank discussion. Rank is left at the door and what needs to be said is said. The team watches the flight video, members admit their own mistakes or what they could have done differently and apply those findings to the next show or practice. 

Project managers can take a cue from these amazing pilots and perform their own project debriefs or lessons learned sessions. It’s okay for team members, including project managers, to make mistakes. It’s not okay for those same mistakes to be made over and over again, especially when they impact project results. 

The following four questions provide a framework for project debriefings, to help you deliver projects better.  

  1. What was the Objective of the Project? Go back to the project charter, business case, ROI calculations, and any other supporting documents that outline why the project was approved. Did the project accomplish the original intent? Do stakeholders feel the project was successful? It may take some time to fully realize the benefits of a project, but you should be able to get an early read on cost savings, revenue increase, or other metrics that define success. 
  2. Did We Hit (or Miss) the Objective of the Project? Compare the results of the project with the original objectives. This could be as easy as four columns in a spreadsheet that show Objective, Actual Results, Numeric Difference, and Percentage Difference. This also implies that there are clear, objectively measured metrics that define success. You need to stay away from “it will increase sales” or “customers will be happier.” Rather, what percentage sales increase are you looking for? How much happier will customers be and how is that measured? 
     
  3. What Caused the Above Results? Look at the objective facts derived from Questions 1 and 2 and ask why these were the results. Be candid and truthful. For example, sales could have been higher if the project was delivered earlier. What caused the project to be late? 
     
  4. What Do We Do Differently Next Time? You now have a finite list of items to work from. This is where the value of the project debrief becomes apparent. Capture lessons learned in a Start, Stop, Continue framework; or, use the KISS methodology of Keep, Improve, Start, Stop. Use whatever works for you, but make sure there are owners and dates for each item to be closed out. 

You may have noticed that this framework differs from the typical, “was the project delivered on-time, in budget, and in scope?” The four questions above catapults you into Stage 5 of the Project Management Journey, where you now see how the project is Generating Value. What an amazing conversation to have with the Project Sponsor and other Executives around the business results their project delivered and how to apply those lessons to future initiatives.  

And, it’s still prudent to apply the four questions above to Time, Budget, and Scope metrics. This will help you continue to hone the performance of your team to Blue Angel-like precision. 

Finally, two suggestions to make your future project debriefs successful. First, foster an environment of trust. Make sure team members feel free to admit their own mistakes and can freely share thoughts about where others could improve without anyone feeling attacked. Second, implement lessons learned that come from the project debrief! It’s frustrating for the team to know what needs to be done to improve, but then the steps aren’t taken to make that difference. 

Sometimes it may feel like your project is moving at Blue Angel-like speeds. Take some time after your next project to slow down and see how you performed. Your team and project sponsors will be glad you did as you continue to deliver one excellent project after another!