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The Personal Touch: Lessons Learned

Let's see: The project was delivered weeks late and over budget. It halted our clients' supply chain and made headlines. Our competitors definitely noticed, as they've taken to injecting it into every conversation. Oh, and did I mention we were just served papers? Beyond that, the project was a smashing success!

Someday, you'll end up selling or managing a "cursed" project just like the above. Your plan belonged in the Wharton syllabi, but the execution was better suited to National Lampoon.

If it’s any consolation, every organization has these cautionary tales…but what can be learned from them? Often, we hear the story in fragments. And such narratives rarely extend beyond how it affected our little silos. We don't see how the bottlenecks, tradeoffs, and decisions snowballed.

That's where "lessons learned" comes into play. Think of it as a hour-long on-site retreat. Basically, this session sticks stakeholders in a room, to review the process and pinpoint operational, service, and communication gaps. It's due diligence after the fact, helping attendees to understand how individual oversights can drain resources, time, and energy from the whole.

Cynics will dismiss it as taking employees to the proverbial woodshed. That's a risk only if it's conducted in a clumsy or punitive fashion. In reality, lessons learned focuses on building communication and teamwork, using context to help attendees understand their peers' mindsets and daily challenges. To get the most from these sessions, apply the following:

Lay the groundwork. Start by defining your objectives. Look at where you stand. Are you still identifying internal and external pressures that toppled your failsafes? Or, have you already absorbed these lessons—and want attendees to discover for themselves? Think about the best practices and institutional knowledge you want to convey, too. Your goals, along with providing a 360-degree perspective, will determine who's invited.

Get a neutral party to facilitate. Such impartiality makes lessons learning less threatening, along with neutralizing bias and personal agendas. Brief the facilitator on what happened. To maximize your time, distribute a one-page memo ahead of time, outlining client needs and specs, timelines, obstacles, and outcome.

Convey the right mentality. Your ground rules will make-or-break your lessons learned. Such sessions can quickly degenerate into blame, score-settling, embellishment, potshots, spinning, and innuendo. Such behaviors distract, undermine goodwill, and sap energy. And the result is the circular firing squad, where everyone loses.

To avoid losing control early, prep your higher ups ahead of time. Lessons learned turns the rules on their head. To uncover root causes, there can be no sacred cows or throwing weight around. Regardless of stratum, everyone has a voice…and it can deviate from the party line. There are times when management's practices and decision-making produce barriers and unintended consequences. They shouldn't be immune from second-guessing.

Second, set everyone at ease. No one should fear losing their job. That means suspending judgment. This is not a personnel evaluation; it's a time to reflect and ask why (and why not). You want attendees to share without worrying about reprisals. To initiate this, open up the floor and respect divergent opinions.

Finally, keep an eye on the big picture. You want to probe your strengths and weaknesses in context, to illustrate concepts and how they can be applied universally. Remember, you are exposing everyone to how all the moving pieces fit together. Start with the how and the why, and end with a plan on how you're going to work together more effectively from this point forward.

Evaluate the process. Start at the macro level and burrow down into the minutiae. In peeling away the process, ask attendees, "If you had done this, what would have happened?" Focus their attention on the ripple effect and how actions (or inactions) impact administration, finance, human resources, business development, legal, and production. In particular, touch on these areas:

• What decision was made? Why?

• What factors impacted the decision?

• What roadblocks were encountered? What was the impact on the customer? The various internal constituencies?

• Was your recognition and urgency appropriate to the issue at hand?

• Review the standard processes and communication channels. Were they understood and employed correctly?

• What do you know now that you didn't know during the sales and development phrases? Why weren't you aware?

Draw conclusions. You've studied the process, issues, and subtext. You recognize your stumbling points, both institutional and interpersonal. These may include the following:

• Expectation management.

• Financial modeling.

• Resource allocation.

• Timelines and benchmarking.

• Incorrect assumptions and inadequate tools.

• Training.

• Quality control and maintenance.

• Internal and external communication.

• Institutional mindsets.

• Client compatibility.

It's natural to have regrets with any project. But for regret to have any value, it should serve as a catalyst. From failures, you can draw attention to issues, build consensus, and sustain the will to act. For example, you can draw upon attendees' collective expertise to prevent future occurrences, such as establishing control mechanisms to enforce conformity or contingency plans to contain damage.

Apply lessons. You recognize what's going right…and what requires a polish or overhaul. Now it's time to take lessons learned across the enterprise. Before concluding your session, look for similarities between your cursed project and those in development or the pipeline. Establish rubrics to tip you off to similar situations in the future.

Second, have your facilitator summarize the results. Assign a note-taker to document the session and outline what was learned, so there are no misconceptions. Before leaving, have attendees list one thing they will change as a result, then follow up with them later.

Finally, schedule these meetings regularly, such as once every three to four months. Cater in lunch to make it less of an "obligation." Of course, integrate lessons from past sessions to establish how much you've grown—and where you still fall short.

SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at