We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.John Dewey
These meetings go by many names - postmortems, retrospectives, after-action reviews, wrap-ups, project “success” meetings. Regardless of what you call them, they all have the same goal and follow the same basic pattern. The Project Retrospective dedicates time to reviewing a completed project and learning from both the successes and the failures so the team and organization can improve how they work going forward.
Formalized as the after-action review by the US Army, these meetings ensure a team quickly learns from each engagement.
There, the classic questions go something like:
- What did we set out to do?
- What actually happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What are we going to do next time?
The Core Process
The process for debriefing a project covers roughly the same topics as the quick after-action discussion. I’ll go into more detail below, but in brief, it looks like this.
1. Review the project.
Start by reviewing the project facts: goals, timeline, budget, major events, and success metrics.
In order to come up with useful ideas that everyone can agree on, the team needs a shared understanding of the facts and insight into the parts of the project in which they may not have been involved.
It’s important not to skip or rush through this step, especially for larger projects. People will arrive at the retrospective ready to discuss and solve problems, often assuming they know everything they need to know about what happened. This is rarely true.
If you are reviewing a project as a team, that means it took many people with unique experiences to get to that point. This step ensures everyone gets all the facts straight before they try to solve problems they may only partially understand.
2. Discuss what worked well and what didn’t.
This is the heart of the meeting. Everyone shares what they learned during the project: both the good and the bad.
In my opinion, this is the most fun and most challenging part of the meeting. As the meeting leader, you have an enormous impact on the success of your retrospective by deciding which questions you’ll ask and how the team shares their answers.
3. Action planning: identify specific ways to improve future work.
Have you ever worked with a group that talks about their aspirations, problems, and what needs to change, but never actually does anything about any of it?
That sucks. It’s de-motivating, discouraging, and a waste of time.
Real change is the ultimate measure of a retrospective’s success. To ensure that your retrospective results in something actually getting better, you’ll end the meeting by creating a specific action plan for improvements.