A Simple Model for Facilitating Lessons Learned Session

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to facilitate a lessons learned session at the end of a major milestone of a multi-year project.  Although the project delivered a product that met the business goals and sponsor’s expectations, there were a number of major changes occurred during the project; particularly the project went through a lot of starts and stops that potentially can be avoided if the lessons are captured and share with future similar projects.

This project had a large group of stakeholders who have tight schedules, so I want to ensure this meeting is structured in a way that can get the most value of their time.  I chose to structure my meeting into 3 parts.  The first two parts involve facilitating conversations around the project and its delivery (what went well and what can we do differently?).  After gathering all the inputs, I then proceed to the third components where each participant gets three votes to help prioritize the top lessons learned that they think will help future similar projects.  This meeting took us approximately 1.5 hours, and each participant walked away feeling they have contributed something together!  So, I strongly encourage you to give this model a try when you run your next lessons learned.

Preparation prior to the meeting

Prior to the meeting, you will need to find a meeting room that has plenty of whiteboards or wall spaces.  Ideally, you will be able to draw or post the following meeting template on the wall to guide the conversations.

Also, if space permits, you can also arrange the room settings into a horseshoes shape facing the wall of this tempate so participants can see each other during the conversation as well as see the notes being captured during the discussion.  If your project has the budget, it would be a good idea to provide some snacks/refreshment as well!

Facilitating the lessons learned meeting

As the PM, you can choose to facilitate the lessons learned meeting yourself or ask a guest facilitator to help so you can participate in the discussions as well.  In most cases, I facilitate my own meeting.

The typical agenda I use will look like the below:

Most importantly, the process of facilitating the meeting!  The way I like run lessons learned is to ensure everyone has a voice!  So, I like to first pose the question for discussion.  For example: “What can we do differently in project planning?”  Then we will go in a round table where everyone will have the opportunity to share their thoughts.  Team members are allowed to ‘pass’ if they don’t have any comments.  And each team member is allowed to share one thought during each turn.  This way, everyone would have an equal chance to stating their feedback without risking dominated by particular strong/outspoken individuals.

Some ground rules that you might find useful to establish at the beginning of the meeting include:

  • Everyone will have an opportunity to provide their ideas
  • Lessons learned are NOT meant to be personal
  • Each person can speak but does not have to speak.  If a team member has nothing to contribute, they may say “pass”

During this time, the facilitator (you) should be writing the comments down on the template that you drew and taped to the wall.  This helps ensure all ideas are captured.

Once the team has the chance to go through all the “what went well and what can we do differently?” questions, it is time to move to the last part of the meeting.

Voting on the top lessons learned

In my experience, this conversation should provide you a wall full of feedback from your project team.  These are all good information, but how do you categorize, prioritize and apply these to future projects?  The technique that I like to use is voting!

For this part of the meeting, I will hand out 6 sticky notes to each participant.  I will then ask them to go up to the wall of where I have captured their comments and find the top 3 lessons learned for what went well and another 3 lessons learned for what can be done differently.  Each of them will have a chance to read all the comments and put a sticky note beside 3 lessons that they think will benefit future projects.

Once everyone completed the voting exercise, I will then tally up the votes.  This exercise is valuable because it provides a simple way to surface the most important considerations that can directly apply to similar projects in the same organization.   This also provides a high-level view for the executive team (or future sponsors) to understand what a project team needs to be successful.

After the meeting

Now, the most important part comes after the meeting.  The meeting is meant for the project team to bring up their experience and lessons, but in order to truly capture the value, the facilitator will need to document all this feedback into a useful format for future reference.  And remember, this documentation should not be only saved on your computer, it needs to be saved in a SharePoint or a central location where future project managers have access to.  Better yet, host a 30 min review session with the project sponsor and executive team to go over these lessons and recommendations if your organization is truly wanting to learn to mature its project management practices.

At the end of this post, you will find a free template for documenting your lessons learned.  I hope you will find this model useful.  As always, please share your thoughts on any tips and tricks that you use to run your lessons learned session with us!



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