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Why Project Debriefs Are Important
By Laura Townson

I think it goes without saying, that when it comes to our work, many of us are fearful of the mistakes we make and the repercussions they may cause. But mistakes don’t necessarily need to be perceived as failures, provided we find value in them; and the most obvious way to achieve this, is by learning from every mistake we make.

More often than not, organizations overlook this integral step in project management. Whether it is due to time constraints, worries of offending one’s colleagues, or perhaps the lack of knowledge on how to conduct an effective debriefing meeting, we miss out on the opportunity to evaluate our performance and learn how we can enhance and improve our approach in future endeavours.

When done properly, debriefing can harvest invaluable information about how to progress in the future, thus helping an organization sustain growth and overcome challenges.

As a project manager for a design company, I have been very fortunate in that I’ve managed a multitude of projects with varying scopes, budgets and measures of successes. I undoubtedly have made some mistakes in my past, and will no doubt continue to make them in the future, but my personal goal is not to eliminate the mistakes I make, but rather to never make the same mistake twice. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to start conducting project debriefs as the final deliverable for each project.

In order for debriefs to be adopted by an organization I think there are three things that must be remembered:

  1. Keep it simple

    After a team puts hundreds of hours into a project, they may be feeling burnt out and mentally checked-out, as their minds start to wander to the new project and deadlines that are looming around the corner. The last thing they want to do is spend hours dissecting every aspect of the project, and evaluating whether or not it could have been better.

    In my opinion, the best way to conduct an effective debrief is to keep it short and simple. Focus on the essential items like: budget versus scope, timeline achievements or short-comings, client frustrations or elations, etc.

    Ideally, the project manager should have a template created to use as a guide which will be filled out upon completion of the debrief and filed with the project records. For all you project managers out there, who are groaning about filling out more reports, remember: short and sweet. The debriefing notes should only amount to about a one page… more than reasonable, so there is really no excuse.

  2. Set the tone

    The project manager should be leading the discussion, and I ‘bold’ the word discussion because I chose it with reason. A debrief should take a brainstorming approach to the questions your team is answering about their efforts. Try to refrain from explaining to your team why things happened the way they did, and rather listen to, and record the teams observations without initial comment. Make sure that the discussion stays focused on the project and not on any of the individual team members. For example, instead of saying, “George, we need to find a way for you to deliver your pieces on time,” try something like, “what are your ideas on how we can ensure all pieces of the project are delivered on time?”

    By giving your team the opportunity to truly listen to one another, they trigger new ideas and approaches. This is why it is essential that you make sure everyone has the opportunity to share their opinion.

  3. Celebrate successes as much as short-comings

    I often hear this misconception that debriefs are only required when a project is a failure. I couldn’t disagree with this statement more. Just as it is important to be proactive and evaluate our mistakes so that we can prevent them from reoccurring in the future, it is equally important that we celebrate our successes. In doing so we can define the vital steps that helped us achieve this success so that it may be applied to future endeavors.

    Not to mention, as a project manager, it is essential that you instil confidence and positivity in your team so that they remain motivated and passionate about the task at hand. The most overlooked but simplest way to achieve this is to offer recognition. Give credit where credit is due.

Project debriefs, in my opinion, is an undervalued tool for learning and growth. By giving your team the opportunity to reflect on past triumphs and ways to improve, you are creating a community environment amongst your peers, offering all involved a voice to say how they believe the organization should conduct business. Empowering your employees and allowing them to take ownership of a project, or particular aspects within it, not only builds your team, but builds a success story.

And now I turn to you, my faithful readers…

I’ve created a working document of a project debrief template with a set of questions to probe discussion and I would love to hear your feedback. Do you have any tactics that you feel offer’s value to a debriefing session? Perhaps you have a template you’d like to share?

I’d love to hear from you!

Laura Townson is an Account/ Project Manager for an organization called Thornley Fallis & 76design.

She has almost six years experience in project planning and management, communications, public relations and promotions. Her current position mainly consists of her managing the execution of a variety of communications, marketing and creative projects, including the design and production of print collateral, websites and multimedia products. At the outset of projects, she works with clients and colleagues to define objectives and a scope of work to ensure all projects are delivered on time and on budget, even in the most challenging of circumstances. You can read more from Laura on her blog. You can also follow Laura via LinkedIn or Twitter.

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