Know what the biggest difference is between an adequate project manager and a great project manager? The great project manager always learns from every project and applies that learning to the next project.
Here’s a simple technique to help you learn from every project too. After each project completion, before you send the project team members on to other things, get all of the project principals together and have a postmortem review. You can kick around as many ideas as you like during the review, but make sure you answer these two questions:
- What did we do right that we want to make sure we do again in the next project?
- What could we do better next time?
In each question, the wording is critical.
What did we do right?
Most postmortem project reviews dwell on the negative, but in all of the projects I’ve seen — even the project disasters — there were always a few things that were done right. It’s important to recognize those things because unless we specifically emphasize them on the next project, there’s a strong likelihood that they won’t be repeated. Overemphasis on negatives in a project review is counterproductive. Everyone walks away from the review with a bad attitude, and no one really learns anything. By stressing the positives, the project team can reinforce the good things that were done, and the team members can leave the review with an upbeat attitude.
What could we do better?
Of course it’s important to learn from project mistakes as well, but it’s too late for blame. Don’t focus on what went wrong — instead focus on how things could be done differently to make them more successful. There’s a subtle difference here. If you talk about things that went wrong, then people get defensive and even antagonistic. But if you recognize the things that went wrong only as a jumping off point to generating ideas for doing things better, then the defensiveness is defused, and team members honestly look for better ways to prevent that kind of mistake on the next project. Even though the bad things that happened on the project come up in the review, the review team doesn’t dwell on them, and so the result is more upbeat and positive.
This works for meetings and events too
I’ve used the same two-question review after a long meeting and after a special offsite event. By asking the two questions at the very end of the meeting or event, we were able to generate a lot of ideas for future improvement, and we ended on an up note. Everyone likes improvement — we just don’t want it to come at our own personal expense. Approaching improvement in this way makes the process much easier to accept, and everyone walks away encouraged.
And that’s how progress is made: reinforce the good things, and figure out ways to improve upon the bad things.