Powering Up Your Project’s Post-Implementation Review

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Are you and your team actively learning from your Project Post-Implementation Reviews (PIR)? Or are the same mistakes being made time and time again? Here are some simple ways to get more out of the project investment.

Select a skilful facilitator/PIR author

It is more complicated than it sounds to produce truly valuable learning. If the lessons were consciously known, then it is logical that something would have been done in the project to avoid a problem emerging. Unfortunately, there are other mechanisms in play that need to be overcome. That is where the skilled facilitator plays a critical role. (this does not necessarily mean that the skilled facilitator needs to be external or independent).

Things to look for in a skilled facilitator:

  • Understands the need for and able to establish appropriate ground rules for the session
  • Seeks permission from the group to play their role of holding them to account in a respectful way. Obtaining informed consent from the participants
  • Session design skills that give confidence that the objectives are achieved
  • Advisor on what would work and not work in the session
  • Has sufficient domain knowledge to separate the issues into relative importance
  • Has a coaching style such that real learning is achieved in the moment
  • Recognises and seeks causal responses rather than accepting effect responses
  • Can quickly establish trust and respect with the group

Create a safe environment

Fear of speaking up, especially to authority, is problematic in the Australian context. This can render a PIR impotent.

Effective ground rules for sessions are only the starting point for creating a safe environment for frank conversation.  Trust needs to be established by the facilitator and with each other. One critical ground rule is that everything discussed and what appears in the report is not attributed to participants in the process. Honouring that anonymity is an important consideration in the selection of the facilitator/author.

Attack the frame of reference

It is human behaviour when asked “what could have been done better?” to reframe the question in your mind as “what could others have done better?” This is a serious constraint to learning in several ways. 

  • It limits the breadth of thinking thus blinding important insights
  • It underscores the complexity of the environment and the interconnectedness of things leading to simplistic (not simple) conclusions
  • Sets up the conversation as them vs us contributing to conflicts that may already exist within the project

To overcome these issues, it is very important to get the questions right to draw out appropriate responses. A better question might be “what could I have done to contribute to a better outcome?” This changes the frame of reference and enables a more effective conversation where outcomes could be actioned. Without creating the right conditions through the ground rules, trust-building exercise and good facilitator selection the issues may be drawn out but in a way that leaves lasting damage to the individual, team and organisation. This is not a satisfactory outcome.

Recognise and counteract deflection

Deflection is another normal human defence mechanism to move the conversation on and away from the individual. It is similar but different from the frame of reference issue. When confronted with a difficult question the typical response is to speak at length without addressing the core question and hoping the conversation moves on shifting the limelight to someone else.  In a group situation often, silence is the strategy to deflect.

This requires an aware facilitator to get the meeting back to answering the question and to draw out the silent individuals.

Seek root cause” not just affect responses

Many years ago, @ Peter Farley brought this concept from LEAN into behavioural science. When confronted with what went wrong, many jump to ‘at effect’ responses which are more symptoms of underlying issues rather than their cause. Peter suggested that the cause is within us (possibly at a subconscious level) and can be brought out with appropriate coaching techniques such as repeating the question followed by silence, projection techniques or “could it be” questions to name a few. An example of this could be that the “at effect” statement is that I don’t get things done because I am too busy. However, the “at cause” may be that I don’t know how to say NO to requests (there may be others). To be effective requires some training in the techniques and above all explicit and informed permission. 

The PIR report is the artefact, not the learning

The most effective PIR is achieved when a learning posture is established. This means that the whole process should be designed and managed as a learning exercise. The report is merely a means to an end. The end being true insight development and learning.  Make it memorable through humour, stories, moral of the story statements, role play, theatre etc. For this, you need to select the right facilitator/author to bring the best out of people and contribute to the learning of the group. The PIR report should be a memory prompt to the participants of the learning that took place. More attention needs to be provided to the people side of projects in the PIR to fully appreciate at cause issues, conditions of success and what to create in future projects to improve outcomes. It is time to get past the more communication, more budget conclusions of PIRs.

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