As individuals, we’re quite good at learning from experience. In fact, many of us trade on it, going to new jobs based on the success of the past. But are we as good at it on a team or an organisational basis? Probably not. Holding a project ‘wash-up’ as a routine part of the end of every project could help everyone on the team to learn from each other’s views and experiences, and even benefit the wider organisation and project management community, if the lessons are written up and shared.

But what’s the best way to do it? We’ve brought together some ideas for creating a positive experience.

Learn, don’t blame Make sure that your project wash-ups are focused on learning. Any hint of blame or scapegoating will send honest appraisal running for the hills. Instead, participants should be encouraged to identify what went well and badly, but to focus on what they would do again, and what they would do differently next time. This will create a much more positive environment, even if the project has not gone very well.

Create the wash-up agenda together as a team Hold a short (10-15 minute) pre-meeting, and use it to brainstorm the highs and lows of the project from the whole team. Write everything on a flip chart or white board, where everyone can see. After about 10 minutes, you should have most of the ‘meat’, and can start to group it by theme. You can either do this by yourself, or with the whole team, but this will create the agenda for discussion at the full wash-up session.

Involve everyone, and have a moderator/facilitator Get the whole team to attend, and remember that it’s really hard to facilitate your own project wash-up, because you were involved. Instead, it’s best to get someone from outside the team to facilitate, using the agenda that you have drawn up together. Make sure that you agree the rules of the session beforehand, to include the focus on learning, and that there will be no personal criticisms.

Set a fixed time period Nobody wants to go on all day. Set a period of 90 minutes to two hours maximum.

Aim to produce actions and improvements The outcome of your wash-up should be a list of actions and improvements that you can all apply next time. This means that you need to be thinking about generalising your successes and failures, and creating general learning points. These can be shared widely, to benefit others in future, and not just your team.

Learn as you go option

All these points are useful for running a successful project wash-up meeting. But there are other options for learning from experience while the project is in operation, both ad hoc and more organised.

One way is to create and use a ‘Lessons Learned Log’ throughout your project, either as a formal part of your project documentation, or as a more informal ‘list in the corner’. This could be as simple as a list of ‘good/bad stuff for discussion later when we have time’, kept on a whiteboard or flipchart in the corner of the project office, and available for all the project team to add to and to see.  This can also help form the agenda for the project wash-up, especially since time and hindsight may change perspectives, and the group may later agree that a once-huge issue later came to be seen as a non-event.

A more formal ‘Lessons Learned’ log should, like a project wash-up, focus on what could be done differently, and may be supported by a regular project review, which could be weekly or even daily for large and complex projects. This can serve multiple purposes: keeping everyone up to date, discussing any ‘scope creep’ that could affect the timing or budget of the project, and identifying anything that has gone less well and what could be done differently both now and in future. This type of regular review of what’s going well and badly is particularly useful for large and long-running projects, with the attendant staff changes and loss of corporate memory that are inevitable.

Share the learning

Whatever method you choose for your project wash-up and review, it’s important that your agreed outcomes are documented and shared. This is vital not just for the immediate project team, but also for wider organisational learning. If your thoughts are particularly profound, or you think the learning especially useful, why not share them even more widely via a project management blog? Thought leadership starts here!

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