Ask 100 people to define Change Management, and you'll get 100 different definitions. At the end of the day, the definition is just semantics. What really matters is whether you can implement a Change Management program in a practical way that allows you to support your organization in successfully achieving its goals. Whether you're a Change Manager, a consultant, or the tech. guy who was told to "figure out some Change Management stuff," this blog will help address common issues and topics you're likely to run into along the way.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lessons Ignored, Part 2: Applying the AAR to Corporate Projects

In my last post, I provided an overview of the 2005 Harvard Business Review article, "Learning in the Thick of It." (Darling, et al)  This article took an in-depth look at the Army's After-Action Review (AAR) cycle, the military version of the popular lessons learned sessions that so many corporate projects conduct as one of their wrap-up activities.  Unlike most corporate lessons learned, however, AARs actually produce on-going learning and tangible results.

As many of you finished reading about the AAR, I imagine your initial reaction was, "That sounds great, and I wish we could implement it, but my team just doesn't have the time or money to invest in such an involved process."  I can understand that reaction.  When timelines and budgets are tight, it's hard to come up for air longer than the time it takes to run to the nearest vending machine for your dinner.  The reality is, though, that when it comes to learning from our successes and failures, you pay now, or you pay later.  And I have always found that when you pay later, the price is much higher.

That being said, here I discuss:
5 Practical Tips for Implementing the After-Action Review

  1. Build it into the plan: Six Sigma experts will tell you that the things that get measured, get done.  I'll modify that a bit to say that on projects, the things that get planned, get done.  Build the entire AAR cycle into your project work plan from the start.  Make the initial set of activities (e.g., the discussion of the objectives, the brief backs, etc.) part of each phase's kick-off activities.  Make the discussion of lessons learned a mandatory step in the sign-off criteria for each phase.  Set aside time in the plan for teams to discuss how they can incorporate learning and implement new strategies in each major project activity.  If you build the process into the plan from the beginning, you won't find yourself trying to find a place to squeeze it in later.
  2. Remember the house rules: The Army has 5 house rules for AAR sessions - Participate, No thin skins, Leave your stripes at the door, Take notes, Focus on our issues. (4)  I would argue that the willingness of people to participate hinges on the willingness of leadership to "leave their stripes at the door" (i.e., forget your title - in these sessions, you're not the Project Manager or VP, you're a member of the team) and of the team as a whole to have a thick skin.  If leaders pull rank and colleagues leave the meeting in a huff, the team will either stop participating or the whole process will become a show where everyone compliments everyone else.  I would add one more house rule: forget your pride.  It's hard to take negative feedback.  The point of the AAR, however, isn't to focus on what you did wrong.  The point is to figure out how to move forward and be even more successful with each new phase. 
  3. Focus on "We":  Most people have sat through a lessons learned session that was more about placing (or deflecting) blame than it was about learning.  Remove "you" and "them" from your vocabulary.  This isn't about figuring out which team did what activity wrong.  The point isn't to find a scapegoat for the timeline extension or budget overrun.  AARs are about "us" and "we".  What have we learned from the activity we just completed, and how can we incorporate this learning into the next activity we have to tackle?  We are a team, and we are jointly responsible for the success or failure of this project.
  4. Make it visible: Once you've decided on the few major lessons you can learn, and figured out a way to incorporate them into the project, make sure everyone is aware of them.  Now is not the time to hoard information among a small group.  Let everyone on the team, from the top Sponsor to the most junior assistant, know what steps the group will be taking to improve the next cycle of activity.  If they're steps that are difficult or that people are likely to forget, post them someplace visible.  Learning takes time and repetition.  Sending out one e-mail at the beginning of a project phase is unlikely to do the trick.  If you're implementing new house rules for running efficient meetings, for the first few weeks make the first agenda item a reminder of the rules.  If you're asking people to follow new guidelines for system development, post the guidelines in the major work areas so people can refer to them without having to dig through their notes.  The easier it is for people to remember the learning, the more likely they are to incorporate it into their daily activities.
  5. Highlight the results: Did the AAR generate lessons learned that led to new strategies that resulted in process improvements and project success?  Let everyone know!  Showing a direct connection between the learning process and improved results encourages everyone to continue the AAR process.  Did some of the new strategies not pan out the way you expected?  Don't hide these results.  AARs are a cyclical process for a reason, and a little trial-and-error is not considered failure.  Instead, when you don't achieve the expected results, look at this as another learning opportunity.  Discuss why the strategy didn't work and figure out how to tweak it so that next time it is more successful.  If you hide mistakes and treat them as a cause for embarrassment or fear, your team will do the same.  Instead of creating an open, learning environment where people look for ways to constantly improve, you'll create a closed and secretive project environment where people stick with the status quo, whether it works or not, to avoid making mistakes.  That's not how the Army's Opposing Force wins, and it's not how project teams achieve success.
Has your project team successfully built lessons learned into the project?  What strategies led to an open environment where people were encouraged to learn from both their successes and failures?

Darling, M., Parry, C., & Moore, J. (2005, July-August). Learning in the Thick of It. Harvard Business Review, 1-8.

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