Regular retrospectives are a popular part of Agile development methodologies. In contrast, large strategic projects, that don’t use Agile, tend to only be reviewed during the closure phase, when it’s too late to course correct and feed the lessons back into the project.
There are many advantages of reviewing a project regularly, throughout its lifecycle. You get a chance to make adjustments to suboptimal processes whilst the project is still in flight and thereby learn in the experience rather than from the experience.
Working in the project vs. on the project
With so many advantages of regular reviews, why aren’t they as common practice as they should be? One of the answers may be lack of confidence on the project managers part, coupled with the fact that they are too busy managing the project on a day-to-day basis – attending meetings, responding to emails and managing risks, issues and changes.
When we work in the project we contribute to the completion of the project’s deliverables and we resolve roadblocks that impede on its completion. It makes us feel good to do real work and to put out fires. When we work on the project, however, we help optimize the project’s processes, strengthen the team, and assess all the steps involved in producing the project’s end result.
This is related to how the work is done rather than what is done.
Although working on the project is one of the primary responsibilities of a project manager it can be a lot harder and less gratifying in the short-term than working in the project. It requires a certain level of project management knowledge, a good proportion of analytical skill and confidence.
If the project isn’t functioning optimally, the project manager may want to avoid an in-depth discussion about it, out of fear that criticism will reflect badly on them and their position. Insecure managers may be more inclined to allow the project to move forward with whatever flaws it has.
I remember a time when I felt very stretched running a large business critical project in the City of London. Although we delivered what we needed to, in the end, the journey was far from smooth. I was focused on keeping everything ticking along and ensuring that we kept making progress. But it was frustrating to work with a team that had some obvious dysfunctions, without knowing how to effectively address it.
Even though I was an experienced project manager, I’m honestly not sure that I had the insight to pull the whole team together and facilitate a proper review. But to be fair, I did carry out a Post Implementation Review.
On subsequent projects my confidence as a project manager and leader increased as I gained a clearer picture of how a project should be executed and what a good team looked like. I began to put more emphasis on continuous improvement and on facilitating review meetings. And the results were noticeable with more dynamic changes and a more aligned team.
But regular reviews shouldn’t be contingent on the project manager’s facilitation skills. The best reviews may be those that are carried out by an impartial facilitator who comes from outside of the team. A good facilitator will ask questions, summarise, and steer the discussion, but they won’t provide the solution. The nice thing about using a facilitator from another team is that the project manager is freed up to contribute to the review on equal footing with other participants.
Project reviews should incorporate the following principles in order to be effective:
1. Create a safe environment
A review will only be effective if the participants feel that they can contribute freely without fear of being blamed for something that didn’t go well. The idea of a review is to identify what is working well and where there is room for improvement.
It’s okay to point out processes that are broken and mistakes that were made, but the purpose isn’t to criticize and put people down but rather to constructively look at areas for improvement. If some team members are holding themselves back, ask them to write down their ideas on post-it notes (or capture them via an online survey in advance of the meeting) so that they can be discussed and reviewed in plenary.
2. Involve all collaborators
As with 360-degree feedback forms, a project review will be more impactful if different roles and stakeholder types are involved in it – from core team members and collaborators, to managers, subcontractors, and clients. When a project works well it means that everyone understands the processes, knows who does what collaborates effectively and that all parties are well-informed.
I wouldn’t recommend that you necessarily invite all of these different groups to one big review meeting, but make sure that everyone is being heard so that you know what their thoughts and ideas for improvements are.
3. Keep it simple
A good review process needs to add value on a repeat basis and be easy to use. You want it to result in measurable improvements and engage the participants without taking up too much time. I recommend a 2-step process:
- In step one, you send out a simple questionnaire or online survey with a maximum of 10 questions that elicit the team’s sentiment on a number of topics and asks about ideas for improvement. Part of the survey can consist of rating scale questions that allow you to gauge the team’s thoughts and feelings. For example “on a scale from 1-5 (where 5 is strongly agree and 1 is strongly disagree) how much do you agree or disagree that we work effectively together as a team? You can also ask what people feel is working well and where there is room for improvement.
- In step two you get the team together, either physically if the team is co-located, or virtually if the team is remote. If the overall team to too large to invite to one single meeting, only invite key team members to step two.
The advantages of using this two-step approach are first that the more introverted members of the team get time to reflect and capture their thoughts in advance of the meeting. It also means that everyone comes prepared and the project manager or meeting facilitator has a good understanding of what the hotspots are prior to the meeting. They, therefore, need to spend less time eliciting feedback and ideas for improvement during the meeting itself.
Thirdly, the two-step approach allows you to gain feedback from a large number in step one which can then be discussed with a smaller number of people in step two.
4. Review project processes and team dynamics
Many project reviews have limited impact because they don’t review the project in sufficient depth. For the review to add the most value it must be comprehensive and home in on the root of any inefficiencies. It’s okay to take note of how the project is tracking to time, cost and quality, but the purpose of the review is to assess the project’s working practices, structure and the team’s dynamic rather than project progress. Project progress is best discussed in a weekly status meeting.
During the review, it can be challenging to get any team inefficiencies or dysfunctions out in the open so that they can be resolved, but if the goal is to improve project execution then it’s imperative to also include the behavioural aspects of the project.
You could, for instance, ask: “to what extent do we address the most important and difficult issues during team meetings? How good are we at helping each other overcome issues and roadblocks? Are you getting the support and feedback you need from other team members?” You can also approach the topic of behaviours by reviewing the team’s ground rules and the team charter.
5. Ask open and insightful questions
One of the critical success factors for a good review is the quality of the questions that the facilitator asks. During the review meeting, there are two main questions that should be asked:
- What is working well for us that we should keep doing?
- What is not working optimally that we should improve on or stop doing?
Other supporting questions include:
- To what degree are we achieving the goals of the project?
- How can we improve the way we plan and track work?
- Which bad decisions have we made that need to be reverted?
- Which ineffective process steps do we need to change?
- How can we improve the way we communicate and collaborate?
- In which ways could we be more supportive and useful to each other?
- To what degree is timely and accurate information available? Is it conveyed clearly and consistently?
A few final tips
As you begin to review and improve your project, try to keep the review process as smooth and consistent as possible. You don’t want to confuse the team by changing the process every time.
If you find that the team is sceptical about a new idea, or unsure if it’s the correct approach, suggest that you try it for two weeks and then re-evaluate.
Finally, if the reviews turn out to be hard work with only a few team members contributing, bring it up. Ask what the real issue is. Are people overworked, disillusioned or demotivated? If you approach this topic with care and curiosity you may be able to resolve one of the biggest dysfunctions of the team.