CXO

Project managers: Here's how failure can breed success

Project managers run the risk of reinventing the wheel if they don't carefully analyze a completed project. Project mentor Tom Mochal discusses how a project debriefing session now will pay dividends later.


Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
It was with mixed feelings that I met with Juan for the last time. Juan was the first project manager I began meeting with when I was asked to take on the role of project mentor. His project to upgrade the phonemail system was complete and his team was meeting with me for a project recap.

“Everyone learned a lot on this project,” Juan said. “Not only did we acquire a lot of knowledge in how to upgrade the phone system, but we also learned the value of managing a project.”

“What were some of the specific lessons you can apply to future projects?” I asked.

“The biggest lesson we learned was the value of proper planning for the project,” Juan replied. “In the past, we would have formed the team, gotten our marching orders, and started to do the work. Although that method may seem effective in the short term, it would have gotten us into trouble as this project proceeded.”

“You’re right. The initial planning effort helped you narrow the scope of what the project sponsor wanted and allowed you to invoke scope change processes. You also did a good job of identifying risks and dealing with them. And of course, the quality checks you installed helped the final installation to go as smoothly as any I have seen,” I said.

“There are many more projects in the infrastructure group that would benefit from these same techniques. It’s too bad they were not all involved to see how this worked,” he said.

I agreed. "Other members of the infrastructure group should be aware of the valuable insights this team learned. A mechanism was already in place to do just that. One of the purposes of the project recap meeting is to document lessons learned so that others can leverage these lessons on future projects.”

Mentor advice
Many organizations understand the importance of trying to reuse common components, templates, and processes. However, those organizations often ignore the value of reusing the experiences gained from each project.

On every project, there are things that go well and things that could have been improved. Decisions that are made and the consequences that followed will be of interest to other project managers who may face similar choices. Many times, the project is considered complete after the solution is implemented. But you should take the added step of documenting success and failure.

One way to do that is through a project recap meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss and document the lessons we learned. (If the project had major problems, sometimes this meeting is called a post mortem.)

These summary findings will be of value to the project team. If an organization wants to develop a project management culture, these lessons need to also be leveraged so that others can learn from the experiences.

In Juan’s case, his team members felt that they learned a lot about how an infrastructure project should be planned and managed. During their recap meeting, Juan will document the successes and key lessons learned that describe how the deliverables were produced and how the project was managed.

In the short term, this document should be published to everyone else in his organization. In the long term, these project recaps should be created using a common template and then stored in a document repository so that all project teams can access them and learn from prior successes and failures. If similar lessons learned are identified repeatedly on multiple projects, they may be elevated to the level of best practices that should be adopted by all project managers.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

What questions do you have about project management? Tom Mochal will answer questions that affect the widest number of readers. Post a comment below or send us a note.

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