Your last project was stellar and you want to replicate the accomplishment. Or, less ideally, you took a bumpy road to lackluster results and you want to improve things next time around. Either way, a project debrief is what you need. It’s simple, powerful, and vital to level up your project management skills and outcomes. If personal and professional improvement is something you’re after, try a project debrief.
What’s a Project Debrief and Why Is It Important?
A project debrief, also known as a project post-mortem or an after action review, is the process of analyzing a completed project to discover what went well, what didn’t, and what improvements can be made for next time, according to Harvard Business School.
A proper project debrief asks and answers three specific questions:
- What were we trying to accomplish?
- What actually happened?
- How can we grow from this experience?
Project debriefs are important because they give you a chance to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of a recently completed project. When done correctly, a project debrief will allow a team to learn what to do (and not do) in the future so that subsequent objectives can be achieved with less hassle.
Think back to when you were a kid and your parents were teaching you how to ride a bike. They probably held you steady as you began to pedal, but once you started to gain momentum, they let go, hoping you’d be able to stay upright on your own.
If you ended up crashing, they might have said something like, “You did a really good job keeping the handlebars steady. Let’s try again, but this time, remember to keep pedaling. It’s much easier to keep your balance when you’re moving.”
This parent-child bonding moment is a mini project debrief. You learned what you did right (you held the handlebars steady) and what you did wrong (you didn’t keep pedaling), and now you have a better idea of how to achieve success the next time around.
By conducting a project debrief with your team, you’ll allow your team to grow, become more productive, and produce better, more sustainable results.
3 Steps to a Successful Project Debrief
Analyzing a project, whether it was successful or not-so-successful, requires three simple steps:
Make the Time
This is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. Life is busy. When one project ends, another springs up to take its place — sort of like the hydra from Greek mythology.
But project debriefs are too beneficial to ignore. So plan time into your team’s busy schedule — debriefs go best when the whole team is involved, says CIO — and make those meetings a priority.
Ask the Right Questions
Project debrief questions can take many forms, but their base structure needs to address three simple inquires: what was the project’s goal, how was that goal achieved or not, and what should we do differently next time.
Question #1: What Were We Trying to Accomplish?
Start your project debrief by reiterating your project’s goal. By reminding everyone present what the project objective was, you’ll put things in perspective and be able to answer the following two questions much more easily.
Question #2: What Actually Happened?
When discussing the outcome of your project, it’s important to cover both the good and the bad. Ask broad questions like, “Did we achieve what we hoped we would?” along with more targeted queries such as, “Did our new project management methodology make things better or worse?”
But don’t just ask what went right or wrong—ask why. This is where the real value is. Was your team more efficient on this project than normal? Why was that so? Perhaps it was because of a new process or specific tool.
It may be hard to get team members to open up in regards to what went wrong. This is natural; none of us like discussing our failures. But it’s essential that you discover why things went sideways so that you can avoid replicating the same issues in the future. Make sure that your team realizes that they won’t get in trouble for admitting mistakes or revealing problems, and that they know you’re simply trying to understand what happened.
Take your time with each question and give every team member a chance to share their opinions so that no insight gets lost or goes unshared. But do ensure that each opinion is backed up by examples. You don’t want to get into the habit of making drastic changes based only on gut feelings.
Question #3: How Can We Grow From This Experience?
Finally, it’s important to ask how you and your team can grow. How will you take what you’ve just discovered and do better next time? Will you try to implement a new business process or procedure? Will you commit to a more realistic timeline? Will you change around who is responsible for what, based on what you’ve learned about your team’s abilities in this debrief?
By drawing actionable conclusions, you’ll be able to ensure that you learn from both your successes and failures and give yourself the best chance to succeed the next time around.
Optimize Your Approach
Now that you’ve asked the right questions and answered them honestly, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into action. A project debrief won’t do you any good if you don’t optimize your approach for the future.
So what did you learn? Is there a way that you and your team can become more productive? Did you discover a way to produce better results with less effort? Maybe the opposite is true. Perhaps you learned that your team was cutting corners and what you really need to do is slow down and ensure that proper quality standards are met.
Whatever conclusion you come to, make sure that everyone participating in your project debrief understands the results and how to move forward and that you communicate the next steps clearly. Your team stands a much better chance of improving and achieving greater future success if each person receives at least one actionable takeaway.
If the project was a smashing success, you may not need individual takeaways. In that case, something as simple as, “That new content creation process increased team productivity by 20%. Let’s keep using that approach in the future,” may suffice.
A Few Project Debrief Best Practices
These additional tips will ensure your project debrief process goes as smoothly as possible:
Set Proper Expectations
First, you need to set the expectation that project debriefs will be standard after every completed project. That way each staff member isn’t surprised by them and can make time in their schedule to participate.
To prepare for the meeting itself, distribute a post-project questionnaire to each team member before the project debrief. This will allow your team to come to your meeting prepared and ready to share their insights.
Elect a Project Debrief Meeting Moderator
Whether you elect yourself and run your own project debrief meetings or choose a highly organized employee to take on this duty, make sure your whole team is clear on who is moderating the meeting. Having one person in charge helps keep meetings civil (tempers can flare after a disappointing project!) and on track.
Wrapping Up: You’re Ready to Conduct a Successful Project Debrief
Conducting a proper project debrief isn’t complicated, but it does require commitment. You and your team need to commit to the project debrief process after each project has been completed, commit to being honest about what went right and what went wrong, and commit to implementing any necessary changes and optimizing your team’s approach.
Then you’ll need to commit to celebrating how much better your projects go in the future. That part shouldn’t be too hard.