It's true that hindsight is always 20/20. However, few people take advantage of this wisdom systematically. Think about the last project you finished, product you shipped or goal you achieved. Did you take the time to do a thorough debrief? Many people don't do a debrief session because they are already busy working on the next project. The purpose of the debrief is to find better ways of doing things the next time by identifying mistakes and clarifying efficiencies. Two important outcomes of this process are:
- To learn and hold onto what works
- To share and teach best practices
Your debriefing session should seek to answer these questions:
- What worked especially well?
- What aspects did not work? What assumptions did we make? What areas needed more support?
- What were the biggest risks we took? Did we take enough risks? How could we better prepare for the "surprise factor?"
- If money, time, and resources were not a factor, what would we do differently? What features, benefits, or "goodies" would we add to the event? Describe in vivid detail this ideal scene in terms of wild success and flawless execution.
To get the most out of this kind of postmortem review, gather a few people who worked on the project, sit around a table, and consider the following tips.
1. Adopt a learner's mindset. "Better next time" does not necessarily mean we didn't do our best this time. This is important, especially for founders, business owners and entrepreneurs. One reason some people tend to avoid the debrief is because of their focus on results and momentum. If something went well, they're already on to the next thing. And, if something failed, then they usually try to fix, make up and move on as fast as possible.
Tennis pro Roger Federer said once, "When you're winning, and things are going well, is the best time to question yourself." When you start your next project debrief, remind yourself, and your team, that the feedback you bring to this discussion is useful now, for the project completed, and for the next project you're going to take on.
2. Make a post-project checklist. Get a few people who were involved in the project together in a room and build a multipoint action list -- post project. If you'll ever do this project, or one like it again, now is the time to learn from the past experience.
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Have you read Atul Gawande's book, The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan Books, 2009)? If not, run, don't walk, and get a copy. At least read some of the reviews on the Internet. I love the Wikipedia definition of the word: A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task.
3. Communicate your debriefing results effectively. The next project you work on will go much more smoothly, especially if your debriefing with people you'll be working with again. During the course of the project, whether it was just a week-long effort or much longer, you no doubt had discussions (in person, via phone, or online) and needed to communicate as effectively as possible.
Remember there are many different ways that people communicate. Some common strengths are: Auditory, Visual and Kinesthetic.
- Auditory means just that, people need to hear it and need to say it, in order to get it. In a debrief, they need to feel "heard," and that their ideas and feedback is accepted and valued.
- Visual means people like to "see" their ideas. During a feedback session, if someone says, "Well, Jason, the way I saw it go was…" I immediately walk to a flip chart or white board and draw a diagram, start a mind map, or at least write a list. They like to see their ideas.
- Kinesthetic people need to touch, hold and "get" that their feedback has been entered, and it could be used again next time. As a kinesthetic learner, I like to have a hard-copy of the checklist we made, and often I'll even make it into a laminated template that I can write on next time we're managing a similar project.
Use the debriefing session as an opportunity to learn, and grow, and think bigger. Acknowledge completion of your last project, celebrate the win (if there was one) and move on, ready to make your best efforts even better next time.