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The post implementation review: Lessons from the past

A common pitfall of many projects is that once the team finally crosses the finish line they ‘forget’ to hold a Post Implementation Review (PIR) meeting. The reasons for this are many and obvious. The collective mindset moves quickly on to other things, and individuals are not motivated to cover old ground if the project ultimately succeeded; even if only by the skin of its teeth. Furthermore, team members quickly become displaced and re-focused, and are often swiftly assigned to other engagements. However, the PIR is an important project discipline which brings considerable benefits to all participants, contributors and the sponsoring business. Accordingly, good project managers (PM) will have the PIR firmly on their radar and will ensure that this vital process does not get forgotten after the project goes live.

It is useful to compare and contrast the PIR in a predictive or waterfall framework, to the equivalent in the Agile world. The Agile methodology considers post-delivery processes to be of such importance as to merit a Sprint Retrospective ‘ceremony’ after every sprint cycle. In other words, upon completion of each short iteration, the agile / scrum team meets to discuss what went well and what went less well so they can re-optimise their processes and methods accordingly and thus drive continual improvement, cycle on cycle, throughout the duration of the engagement. Agile methodologies also offer best practice guidance on conducting these ceremonies. According to this, ’ceremonies’ should be no more than one hour in duration and feedback from the team should be succinctly gathered and categorised as ‘Glad, Sad, Mad’ observations, allowing the team to express their true emotions in an open forum. This in-flight, regular checkpoint is clearly a good progress health check and a great credit to the Agile philosophy. If waterfall projects also adopted one or more interim progress / quality checkpoints, perhaps scheduled at significant milestones without waiting until project end and wash-up, better quality outcomes would be achieved along with greater control and quality adherence throughout. This is a similar concept to the PRINCE2 end stage review, but has much more focus on the project team reviewing and refining its own process rather than an assessment of status reported to the project board.

Now, let’s explore the composition of the PIR meeting in detail. In order to drive impartiality and objectivity, it is highly recommended that the meeting chair is delivered by someone external to the project. The PM can, and indeed should facilitate, ensuring quorum attendance, that individuals are invited in good time, and that the necessary collateral is prepared. However, as the PM plays a critical role in directing the project, it is unwise to let them drive the PIR session due to the potential for bias and / or a perception of lack of impartiality.

The general attendance of the meeting is also critical to its success. During the project’s run, interactions between participants may have been strained during tough times, and even in extreme cases become adversarial. It’s important this emotional baggage does not influence the session and that attendees partake with an open mind, so that a clear retrospective analysis can be undertaken by all. The chair should open up the meeting by establishing a set of clear rules by which the session is to be run. Attendees should be encouraged to discuss their personal perceptions of the project in an open and honest manner, albeit under direction of the chair to ensure fairness in subject and time allocation.

A positive opener for the PIR would be a statement of the project’s conclusion. If it was a success then this should be clearly acknowledged in the PIR meeting by the PM and project executive / steering. A message of thanks for project contribution to the attendees and other contributors, perhaps absent, will be warmly received. Such a celebration of success, no matter how small, should not be overlooked.

Now to the content of the meeting – firstly the project’s stated objectives and proposed / projected benefits must be re-examined and a clear assessment of the overall outcome validated against this. Note, it is important that there has been sufficient time since project completion to gauge outcome success or otherwise - if rollout of change has been too recent, ultimate outcome is a guess at best (suggest a small number of weeks delay to PIR as an ideal gap). Have the anticipated benefits been realised in line with expectations documented at inception? If there is a discrepancy, this must be agreed and documented as such by the PIR (and factored into future planning).  

Next the PIR should closely examine the deliverable and how the project performed in its execution. Some of the key measures to be reviewed by the PIR meeting are easy to verify – cost against budget, performance against plan etc. Others are more subjective - quality, remaining functional gaps, residual defects, acceptance into the business – but equally important as feedback. Customer satisfaction surveys, post live defects, support calls are effective ways for the PIR to review and deliver feedback on these grey areas. 

Linked to these deep assessments in performance, the takeaways for all are ‘lessons learned’ during the project. If they can be properly abstracted from ‘project noise’and be clearly defined and acknowledged, then team members will benefit enormously from acquired knowledge and experience gained on the front line.

Producing formal minutes of the PIR’s outputs for the team and external stakeholders illustrates transparency and openness in collective assessment, gives attendees satisfaction that all shapes and sizes of observation were noted, and serves as a great primer or template for subsequent reviews. The overriding question is, ‘does this retrospective navel-gazing give us positive payback or just serve to re-open unwanted memories of dark times, best confined to history?’ For me the answer is simple – PIRs are by far the best way to learn from past experiences, including mistakes. If we can make this effort and drive the process through as objectively and professionally as possible, we will all prosper and learn from the experience. To confine the project’s operation and outcome immediately to history is a wasted opportunity.

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