Monday, November 28, 2011

Conducting Project Debriefings

I can imagine readership dropping off some this week. Conducting project debriefings is hardly a sexy topic. A Google search on the subject, not surprisingly, turned up very little. Perhaps that's why they are alarmingly infrequent among most A/E firms.

But if your firm is committed to ongoing improvement, regular project debriefings are a must. The basic process is pretty simple: The project team meets to answer two important questions: (1) How did we do? and (2) What can we do better next time? Typically, this occurs at the end of a project, but on larger projects you will do well to conduct interim debriefings at key milestones.

Here are some guidelines for making these sessions productive:

Keep the tone of the review positive. The primary goal of the debriefing is to define work process improvements. While you will obviously need to discuss problems and issues, you want to avoid criticism and placing blame. If things went poorly, some people may want to use the session to air their gripes. But remind them that everything said must be constructive. That means no personal attacks or dwelling on what went wrong. Encourage critics and complainers to turn their attention to finding solutions.

Consider having an outside party facilitate the debriefing. Someone who had little or no involvement in the project is often more effective in pointing to the root of problems and guiding the team to better remedies. This person can look at issues more objectively and ask probing questions from a more detached, outsider's perspective. For larger projects, you might want to have a panel of outsiders guide the review and offer additional recommendations for improvement.

Make sure everyone is heard. Sometimes production staff and junior professionals are reluctant to speak out in these meetings, especially in the presence of senior managers. As facilitator, you want to stress that everyone's perspective is important because everyone contributes to the project's success. Try to create a "safe" environment where everyone's input is valued. Production staff often have a substantially different view of things, which can be helpful in designing process improvements that will work. If you cannot get certain team members to open up during the debriefing meeting, seek their feedback privately.

Consider diagramming the work flow. Providing a visual representation of how work gets done can be quite useful in identifying existing inefficiencies and proposed improvements. In some cases, you may be surprised how little team members understand about the overall work flow. Once diagrammed, you can more easily uncover gaps, unnecessary steps, improper sequencing, and other process deficiencies. Hint: Work flow diagrams can be even more useful at the start of the project.

Assign responsibility for implementing changes. All too often, improvements identified in such debriefings don't get made because no one was specifically assigned the responsibility, tasks are ill defined, or deadlines are not given. Don't make the mistake of simply deciding what needs to be done; determine how it will be accomplished. Most work process changes ultimately involve multiple people, perhaps even the entire project team. Seek buy-in and commitments from the team before proceeding.

Of course, include feedback from the client. In making process improvements, you certainly want to consider client perceptions of how things went and what changes they'd like to see. For that reason, I advise getting such feedback in advance of your internal debriefing session. Client feedback is often a great motivator for getting the team to follow through on improvements.

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