Learning from the Past: How Post-Project Reviews Can Help You Succeed in the Future/

Post-project reviews are an important learning mechanism that is often underestimated. By sharing insights and lessons learned, they can help organizations improve their processes and outcomes. They show effective dissemination of knowledge, correct errors, and predict outcomes of projects.

Learning from the Past: How Post-Project Reviews Can Help You Succeed in the Future/
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In many organizations, it is common to conduct post-project reviews, and there are good reasons for doing so. The reason being, individuals do not always learn from their own experiences, and it is essential to revise their existing knowledge by testing new experiences. For instance, to understand a person, you must encounter them multiple times before making any decisions about them. Therefore, if you want to learn from experience, you need to consolidate your different experiences to draw meaningful conclusions.

In addition, the knowledge of what occurred is usually dispersed among several people, especially in organizations where outcomes are not directly observable. Therefore, consulting other people is necessary to know the outcomes of our performance. This is because it is not always possible to have a complete understanding of all aspects of a project. Consulting other people helps to fill in the missing information gaps.

The knowledge required to diagnose outcomes is also dispersed among several people. People often make wrong assumptions about why others fail in their duties, and these misconceptions need to be corrected to identify reasonable remedies for such failings. Therefore, learning from experience collectively is necessary to avoid repeated errors that are common in organizational life. Dissemination of knowledge is critical, especially since tasks are not always assigned to the most qualified individuals in some organizations. Thus, what one person learns from doing a project needs to be disseminated to others who might fill similar roles in the future. This way, the organization can avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly.

Retrospective reviews are integral to the operations of some organizations, such as military air forces, which are highly regarded. By conducting post-project reviews, organizations can identify areas of success and potential improvement. This feedback can be used to develop best practices, training programs, and other initiatives that can help the organization to continually improve its performance.

The Price We Pay

Post-project reviews are an essential part of project management. They provide stakeholders with valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of a project and can help identify areas for improvement in future projects. However, despite their importance, post-project reviews are often overlooked or cut short, and the outcomes are not effectively shared.

One of the main reasons for this neglect is the time and effort required to conduct a thorough review. For project-oriented firms that are focused on minimizing costs, the idea of dedicating additional time and resources to a review may not seem feasible. Additionally, participants may feel cynical or embarrassed when looking back over events, which can make them more interested in looking forward to new work.

Furthermore, maintaining social relationships is often more important to people than accurate diagnoses of isolated events. People may be hesitant to engage in activities that could lead to blame, criticism, or recrimination. This can make it challenging to conduct an honest and open review.

Lastly, some people believe that experience is the best teacher. According to this view, people will naturally learn from their own experiences but not from others. However, this approach overlooks the valuable insights that can be gained from the collective experiences of a team.

Given these competing reasons, it's fair to ask whether post-project reviews should be conducted at all, and if so, how they should be conducted. Despite the potential drawbacks, it's important to recognize the benefits of conducting a thorough post-project review and to develop strategies for overcoming the challenges associated with this process.

The Realm of Discovery

The study examined four post-project review meetings that took place across three different companies. The projects analyzed were all of significant value, ranging from several hundred thousand to a few million dollars, and involved extensive engineering design and development work. The three companies, though all supplying capital equipment to industrial users, came from diverse sectors, including electrical equipment, coating plants, and precision product machinery. While one of the companies conducted post-project reviews on a regular basis, the other two only did so occasionally.

To analyze the post-project review meetings, the study used discourse analysis, which is a method that closely examines the conversations that occurred during the meetings. This approach breaks down the meeting transcripts into small speech units, usually sentences, to better understand the overall structure of the conversation. The advantage of this method is that it provides a detailed and comprehensive view of what happened during the meeting, which can support any conclusions drawn. However, the process is time-consuming and can only be applied to a limited number of situations. As a result, the observations discussed in this paper are based on clear evidence but may not be representative of post-project reviews in other organizations.

The study's findings shed light on the effectiveness of post-project review meetings in different organizational contexts. The analysis revealed that the frequency of post-project review meetings varied across the three companies, with one company conducting them regularly and the other two doing so only occasionally. Additionally, the study found that discourse analysis is an effective method for examining post-project review meetings, as it provides a comprehensive view of the conversations that took place during the meetings. The method revealed that the structure of the conversations differed across the companies, with some meetings being more focused and productive than others.

Overall, the study's findings highlight the importance of post-project review meetings in promoting organizational learning and improving project outcomes. The study suggests that organizations should conduct post-project review meetings regularly and use methods such as discourse analysis to gain a better understanding of the conversations that take place during these meetings. By doing so, organizations can identify areas for improvement and implement changes that can lead to better project outcomes in the future.

The Odyssey of Learning

In the course of the study, it was observed that participants collectively engage in a variety of approaches to learn from project reviews. One of the most prominent approaches was the use of dialectic argument style during intellectual discussions. This style involves presenting an explanation that is challenged by another contradictory explanation, leading to the synthesis of a third explanation. The synthesis is achieved through the process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For example, in a discussion about a missed meeting, one participant may argue that the other party disregarded the request to attend, while the other party may argue that they were not given adequate notice of the meeting. Through the dialectical process, the group can arrive at a conclusion that considers multiple perspectives and acknowledges that events can have multiple interpretations.

Another approach that participants used during the review process was mental rehearsal or replay of event sequences. Participants recollected their interactions with clients regarding changes in design requirements and mentally reenacted these events to determine the cause and effect relationship between them. This form of replay is a natural process that helps in understanding why things unfolded the way they did. However, it is important to note that participants verbally rehearsed event sequences without specifying exact times, except for a few exceptions. Also, it is crucial to recognize that precedence only partially denotes causality, and people may draw inferences about causality when none exists.

During the review process, it was also observed that several participants utilized mental simulations to envisage alternate outcomes. For instance, they considered how different practices or suppliers could have affected the outcome of the project. These simulations relied on the participants' informal mental models of cause and effect. The participants discussed how using a different supplier would have required more coordination or how it would have led to a missed deadline due to a lack of available staff. While simulations involve hypothetical events rather than actual ones, they can be invaluable when there are limited examples to draw from. By simulating different scenarios, participants can broaden their experiences and draw more reliable conclusions.

In conclusion, the study revealed that participants employ various approaches to learn from project reviews. These approaches include dialectic argument style, mental rehearsal or replay of event sequences, and mental simulations. By utilizing these approaches, participants can broaden their experiences, consider multiple perspectives, and draw reliable conclusions. It is important to note that while these approaches have their merits, they also have limitations that must be acknowledged.

The Framework of Review 

In the course of the study, it was observed that the review structures adopted by various firms were not uniform. Two firms that were new to reviews had a different structure for their reviews as compared to the experienced firm. The two new firms adopted a chronological approach where the review process coincided with the project's stages. The participants were given the task of evaluating the outcomes of the project and identifying areas that required improvement. On the other hand, the experienced firm adopted a different approach where participants compiled individual lists of both positive and negative observations and grouped them under common headings. This structure was adopted due to the extended duration that the chronological approach would have taken.

However, it was observed that the efficacy of the review process and its discussion processes were not dependent on the overall structure employed. Both successes and shortcomings were common to all structures, indicating that the success of the review process was not solely based on the structure employed.

The presence of outsiders was the only significant factor that distinguished the reviews. The inclusion of project managers in new projects allowed for the results to be disseminated and provided a sense of context that was vital in understanding the successes and failures.

It was also observed that historical references were infrequently utilized during the review process, and the few that were used had specific functions, such as providing evidence for explanations or demonstrating changes in the firm. There were no historical references that helped participants understand whether the events were systemic, indicating that the post-project reviews failed to effectively draw on broader experience as a means of learning.

The Gift of Learning

During the learning process, participants shared their experiences of both successful and unsuccessful practices. For instance, project managers of new projects were informed of the negative consequences associated with having one person handle both technical and managerial roles, a practice deemed unfavourable. This sharing of knowledge led to a dissemination of "propositional" knowledge, which refers to knowledge that can be articulated but not necessarily put into practice. It is uncertain whether these managers would replicate such practices under similar circumstances, but the exchange of ideas and experiences contributed to their understanding of the potential risks of certain practices.

Aside from task-oriented knowledge, participants also gained insights into the difficulties of their colleagues' jobs, the constraints they faced, and the challenges involved in being helpful. This understanding of perspectives is essential for effective teamwork, but it is not always achieved through regular work activities. The knowledge acquired in this area aided in improving social relationships, which is a crucial aspect of any work environment.

Another crucial area of knowledge acquired by the participants was complexity. They realized that some events were more intricate than they initially thought. For example, in a late handover meeting, everyone attributed the delay to a single cause, but it turned out to be a complex combination of several factors. This type of learning, or unlearning, is as valuable as any other, but it can be unsettling for individuals as it challenges their preconceived notions and makes their models of the world more complex. It underscores the fact that many problems do not have simple solutions and require a deeper understanding of the underlying factors.

The Measure of Learning

The analysis conducted by the team sought to evaluate the effectiveness of the learning process in the reviews. While this might seem like an unfair approach, the team opted to identify any flaws and limitations in the reasoning process that occurred during the reviews. This approach was chosen not to give the impression that the overall level of learning was poor but rather to gain insights into how the reviews could be improved. The team discovered that attribution bias was a major problem during the reviews. Attribution bias is a phenomenon where participants tend to overemphasize the role of the environment and underplay their own involvement when explaining results. During the review meetings, participants tended to blame external factors and parties not represented at the reviews for problems that arose during the project. The team observed a strong tendency to explain problems by referring to other parties, and only a few instances where an individual admitted an error or acknowledged the need to change their way of working. However, some participants did show a willingness to take responsibility for problems and ask what could have been done to remedy them, demonstrating an "internal locus of control." Successful individuals and firms tend to have an internal locus of control, which means they believe that events are within their control, and they devote effort to exerting control. Therefore, it is crucial to ask what could have been done to address a problem, even if it was caused by external factors.

During the analysis, it was observed that the review participants tended to be overly specific in their diagnoses, which may have resulted in missing the bigger picture. For instance, a simple problem of placing equipment in a hard-to-reach location was diagnosed as a slip without considering whether it was part of a bigger problem or a more general difficulty in visualizing installation and maintenance problems during equipment design. This excessive concreteness may have led to tackling intermediate causes instead of addressing the root cause of the problem. As a result, the remedies implemented were often too elaborate and failed to address the underlying issue. The review process lacked generalization, and participants rarely questioned whether a specific problem was part of a bigger problem. Due to this, there was little room for wholesale replacements of current knowledge, and the learning was strictly incremental, resulting in an inability to react to significant changes in the environment. Although there were no indications that any of the firms were currently facing significant changes, becoming habituated to incremental learning could make them ill-equipped to tackle significant changes in the future.

During the reviews conducted, it was observed that the participants had a tendency to engage in shallow diagnosis, rather than deep diagnosis. The reviews were primarily focused on causal reasoning, which involves reasoning forward from cause to effect. On the other hand, diagnostic reasoning, which involves identifying the root cause of a problem, was not given much importance. The participants were also hesitant to seek help from others to diagnose a problem. None of them asked a diagnostic "why" question; instead, they asked clarifying "whys" to understand the nature of the problem.

The absence of deep diagnosis can be attributed to individual cognitive styles and social conventions. People tend to reason in a way that is most comfortable for them, which, in this case, is causal reasoning. Moreover, participants might have been reluctant to ask others why they had done something because they were worried about souring their relationship with them.

The organizations studied here promote the norm of being constructive, which means that managers prefer employees who come to them with solutions instead of problems. Criticism is often seen as important, but only if it is constructive. As a result, people tend to avoid exploring the root cause of a problem unless they have a solution in hand. This is not because they are inherently reluctant to criticize, but because they know that criticizing gratuitously does not look good in the eyes of others in the organization.

During the analysis process, one of the issues that emerged was the lack of reference to objective outcome data, particularly with regards to costs and time scales. These data could have easily been collected from records maintained by the firms. Participants of the reviews found it difficult to recall the timing of events in some cases, while in other cases, the financial performance of the project was not clear. These uncertainties could have easily been resolved with a little research into the records. Since project success is generally measured by these outcomes, it is important that they are central to the review process. However, during the reviews, more references were made to practices than outcomes. Instead of examining how costs deviated from the budget and why, the participants examined how they worked and whether they could have done better. This seemed to be putting the cart before the horse, and it could be attributed to the fact that technical participants showed little concern with business matters. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be more concerned with practices than outcomes. Firstly, financial performance, which is considered an outcome, is determined by project members' activities and the environment they work in. This implies that poor financial performance does not necessarily indicate poor practices. Secondly, global outcomes of complex undertakings like projects generally provide poor feedback when they are composed of many different kinds of activities. The project members have a natural incentive to examine practices rather than outcomes since they have the most direct control over their practices. Project costs and timings were not particularly helpful indicators of how well the participants performed their tasks, even if they are obviously informative to senior project managers.

Many times, organizations may have limited time and resources, which can lead them to focus only on the most significant outcomes. However, this approach can result in overlooking essential concerns that may arise as minor mistakes. It is important to understand that even small errors can lead to substantial complications in the future, providing valuable learning opportunities.

After conducting reviews, the researcher interviewed each participant for about ten minutes. Also, members of other reviews were informally spoken to after completing their respective tasks. During the interviews, participants expressed neither complete dismissal nor full support of the reviews, showing a certain level of skepticism about their potential impact. This skepticism may have arisen from people's distrust of organizations and their past experiences with managerial activities that did not lead to noticeable improvements. Furthermore, the remedies proposed in the reviews were not thoroughly analyzed, and side effects and implementation were not adequately planned, with only one review acknowledging the need for more detail in planning.

The Cost of Worth

In the process of planning remedies, it is common for individuals to be skeptical of organizational interventions due to their potential unfavorable side effects and the protracted and messy implementation process. However, despite the limitations, reviews play a crucial role in the learning process. They allow individuals to demonstrate their concern for the organization's objectives, correct any misconceptions and justify their actions. Moreover, reviews offer available practices that were not realized by those who could have utilized them, fostering collective remedies and engendering feelings of commitment to them. Although sometimes dismissed for their superficiality, the fact that they were voiced collectively constitutes a positive outcome.

Besides the above functions, reviews also play an important role in disseminating information. Sharing the review results with outsiders spreads information that may not have been shared otherwise, and post-project reviews are particularly effective in disseminating crucial information that participants may have already known but did not think to share with others. Despite this, people generally underestimate the dissemination function of post-project reviews.

The learning process has three primary inadequacies: overspecificity, lack of historical context, and inaccuracies in problem diagnosis. Overspecificity can manifest in either an excessively narrow perspective of the learning process or the direct and rigid interpretation of learned material, both of which impede effective learning. To overcome these limitations, it is essential to recognize the larger system and view specific failures as examples of more general failings. Historical context is also crucial in effective learning, and it is surprising that only six reviews referenced historical experiences. Without an understanding of unique ver

Unfold Your Destiny

The development of each product may have unique aspects, but similar processes and objects must still be dealt with. Therefore, it is crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of history, but this understanding must be interpreted correctly. Unfortunately, accurate diagnosis is often lacking in many organizations. Despite encouragement to utilize tools such as cause-effect analysis and problem-solving techniques, individuals tend to avoid causal diagnoses. This tendency may be due to individuals finding it easier to reason from cause to effect rather than the reverse. Alternatively, it may be because people feel a social obligation to avoid directly criticizing others, particularly if they wish to maintain a long-term relationship.

Consequently, they are unlikely to sacrifice good relationships for the sake of one or two accurate diagnoses of events that cannot be undone. Additionally, individuals may have already made their own private diagnosis of events and do not see the need for a collective diagnosis. This can lead to shallow understanding and improper remedies that only address symptoms rather than causes. Ineffective post-mortems, like ineffectual people, avoid conflict in the name of long-term goals, but ultimately sacrifice long-term goals for short-term comfort.

Ultimately, an organization's ability to pursue long-term goals and endure discomfort is a test of leadership, moral courage, persuasiveness, and will. Achieving this requires an individual to possess the necessary leadership skills, including the ability to lead by example, motivate others, and exhibit moral courage. By doing so, individuals can foster an environment that encourages accurate diagnosis and the pursuit of long-term goals.

As an assistant, I recommend the following "watchwords" for review chairpersons to ensure a thorough and effective review process:

  1. Encourage deep diagnosis: Use cause-effect diagrams if they can be helpful. Encourage attention to history: Ask whether similar things have happened before.
  2. Encourage examination of the bigger system beyond the immediate confines of the project.
  3. Discourage glib categorization: Avoid categorizing complex problems as "communications issues" without proper examination. For instance, two people may make different assumptions about responsibility for a particular action, but a proper diagnosis would examine how and why these different assumptions arise and persist.
  4. Plan remedies properly: Consider side effects and implementation thoroughly. If necessary, have a second meeting to discuss proposed remedies.
  5. Invite key outsiders to post-project reviews to assist in dissemination: Involving managers of new projects in the review process can be more effective than written summaries, as summaries can lack detail and fail to convey contentious issues.

It's important to note that these practices may seem like common sense, but they often fail to materialize even among highly intelligent and thoughtful review chairpersons. As an AI-powered assistant, I'm here to help ensure that you implement these practices and conduct a successful review.

In summary, according to recent studies, post-project reviews are highly recommended in project management. However, it is important to note that the knowledge required to diagnose outcomes is dispersed among several people. People often make wrong assumptions about why others fail in their duties, and these misconceptions need to be corrected to identify reasonable remedies for such failings. Therefore, learning from experience collectively is necessary to avoid repeated errors that are common in organizational life. Dissemination of knowledge is critical, especially since tasks are not always assigned to the most qualified individuals in some organizations. Thus, it is important to pursue a collective diagnosis to achieve a deeper understanding of the problem and to develop more effective solutions.

Summary

The importance of post-project reviews cannot be overstated, but conducting them can be a challenge for project-oriented firms that want to keep costs low. Participants in the review process may feel cynical or embarrassed when reflecting on past events, which can make them more interested in looking forward to new work. Additionally, maintaining social relationships is often more important to people than accurately diagnosing isolated events. This can cause people to be hesitant to engage in activities that could lead to blame, criticism, or recrimination.

There are competing reasons for conducting post-project reviews, and it's fair to ask whether they should be conducted at all, and if so, how they should be conducted. To gain a comprehensive view of post-project review meetings, discourse analysis was used to closely examine the conversations that took place during the meetings. This approach breaks down the meeting transcripts into small speech units, usually sentences, to better understand the overall structure of the conversation. Although this method provides a detailed and comprehensive view of what happened during the meeting, it is a time-consuming process that can only be applied to a limited number of situations. Therefore, the observations discussed in this paper are based on clear evidence but may not be representative of post-project reviews in other organizations.

Another valuable approach to reviewing projects is through simulations. Simulations are similar to replays, but they involve hypothetical events rather than actual ones. This type of reasoning is known as causal reasoning, which is preferred over diagnostic reasoning, which entails working backward from a result to determine the cause. However, this approach may result in a lack of profound diagnosis and a focus on possible remedies rather than tracing the chain of causes and effects.

Nonetheless, simulations can be invaluable when there are limited examples to draw from. They can help identify potential problems and solutions before they occur, allowing organizations to be proactive in their approach to project management. Ultimately, the choice between post-project reviews and simulations will depend on the specific needs and goals of an organization.

In project management, organizations have the option to conduct post-project reviews or simulations to anticipate issues and be proactive in their approach. The choice between the two methods largely depends on the specific needs and goals of an organization. Simulations, for instance, allow participants to simulate different scenarios, broadening their experiences and drawing more reliable conclusions.

Moreover, participants acquire knowledge that pertains not only to tasks but also improves social relationships. Through simulations, they gain insights into the difficulties of their colleagues' jobs, the constraints they face, and the challenges involved in being helpful. This understanding of different perspectives is crucial for effective teamwork but is not always attained through regular work activities.

In addition, simulations provide an opportunity to learn about complexity. Participants realize that some events are more intricate than they initially thought. For instance, in a late handover meeting, everyone attributed the delay to a single cause, but it turned out to be a complex combination of several factors. Although this type of learning, or unlearning, is as valuable as any other, it can be unsettling for individuals as it challenges their preconceived notions and makes their models of the world more complex. It also highlights the fact that many problems do not have simple solutions.

Despite the limitations, post-project reviews serve several important functions. They allow people to demonstrate their concern for the organization's objectives and correct misconceptions they had learned during the project. The reviews also provide the opportunity for individuals to explain and justify their actions in a way that was not always possible during the project. Additionally, the reviews offer available practices that had not been realized by those who could have utilized them. Consequently, they fostered collective remedies and engendered feelings of commitment to them. While remedies were sometimes dismissed for their superficiality, the fact that they were voiced collectively constituted a positive outcome.

Post-project reviews also serve an important disseminating function. Sharing the review results with outsiders helps spread information that might not have been shared otherwise. The reviews are particularly effective in disseminating essential information that participants may have already known but did not think to share with others. Overall, people generally underestimate the dissemination function of post-project reviews.

Conducting post-project reviews is an effective way to gain a detailed and comprehensive understanding of what happened during a meeting or project. Such reviews can provide invaluable support for drawing conclusions and identifying areas for improvement. However, it is important to note that this process can be time-consuming, which can be a challenge for project-oriented firms that are focused on minimizing costs.

Additionally, participants may feel cynical or embarrassed when reflecting on past events, which can make them more interested in looking forward to new work rather than dwelling on the past. It's also important to remember that maintaining social relationships is often more important to people than accurate diagnoses of isolated events. People may be hesitant to engage in activities that could lead to blame, criticism, or recrimination.

Despite these challenges, post-project reviews are critical to avoiding repeated errors that are common in organizational life. The knowledge required to diagnose outcomes is often dispersed among several people, and people often make wrong assumptions about why others fail in their duties. Misconceptions need to be corrected to identify reasonable remedies for such failings. Therefore, learning from experience collectively is necessary, and dissemination of knowledge is critical, especially since tasks are not always assigned to the most qualified individuals in some organizations.

Given the competing reasons for and against conducting post-project reviews, it's fair to ask whether they should be conducted at all, and if so, how they should be conducted. However, retrospective reviews are integral to the operations of some organizations, such as military air forces, which are highly regarded.

Finally, it's important to consider historical context when conducting post-project reviews. Only six reviews referenced historical experiences, but understanding unique versus systemic issues is critical to effective learning. Remedies may be less effective, and confidence in them may be excessive without proper context. Nevertheless, applying historical context is not always straightforward, and two common aphorisms come to mind: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Post-project reviews are an essential aspect of any project-oriented firm's success. However, these reviews often take up time, which can be a challenge for such firms that aim to minimize costs. Additionally, participants in such reviews may feel cynical or embarrassed about revisiting past events, which may lead them to focus more on future work than reflecting on the past.

Keeping social relationships intact is crucial for employees, which is why they may hesitate to engage in activities that could lead to blame, criticism, or recrimination. However, it is essential to learn from collective experiences to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly. The knowledge required to diagnose outcomes is often dispersed among several people, and misconceptions need to be corrected to identify reasonable remedies for such failings.

Retrospective reviews are integral to the operations of some organizations, such as military air forces, which are highly regarded. However, avoiding deep diagnosis can lead to shallow understanding and improper remedies that only address symptoms rather than causes. Therefore, careful analysis is crucial for effective learning from experiences.

It is also essential to consider historical context in effective learning from experiences. Without an understanding of unique versus systemic issues, remedies may be less effective, and confidence in them may be excessive. Nevertheless, the application of historical context is not always straightforward. It is crucial to view history at the appropriate level of generality to gain a comprehensive understanding and interpret it correctly.

Ultimately, getting an organization to pursue long-term goals and endure discomfort is a test of leadership, moral courage, persuasiveness, and will. Effective leadership entails leading by example, motivating others, and exhibiting moral courage to create an environment that encourages accurate diagnosis and the pursuit of long-term goals.