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Notes from a Post-Implementation Review

One good practice in software development that is noted more often for its breach than its observance is a formal Lessons Learned review at the end of a project. Recently I took part one for a major project in which I had played a key role, which was only the second time (in over 15 years) that I have been involved in such an exercise. It is likely that others with a development background like mine will have attended these as infrequently as me; here are a few thoughts about how the exercise was conducted.

It was taken seriously. The bulk of a day was set aside well in advance, and a detailed agenda was circulated to all interested parties. This was important as I was able to collate the thoughts of my senior colleagues to present to the meeting. They were happy to supply me with comprehensive and refreshingly honest (!) feedback to pass on.

The agenda divided into two parts. For the first session we discussed what went well and what didn’t during each stage of the project from initiation to handover (15 were identified in all). The second session used a formal Lessons Learned template to feed back the consensus of the project on a number of standard statements. On the whole the free discussion of each stage was more revealing and generated more useful feedback.

The organiser had taken care (a lesson learned from a previous review, perhaps?) to appoint one person to act as timekeeper and take notes. We didn’t always keep strictly to the agenda as it often made sense to address related issues out of order, but the timekeeper was good at assessing where we were starting to let time drift and force us to wrap up discussion. In the end, we completed our discussions early as the later agenda items all went quite well and didn’t require much discussion.

I felt we ran through the agenda too quickly, as we had to cut short a lot of worthwhile discussion. On the other hand the meeting was long enough already. There hadn’t been any other reviews at key points in the project (at least, not in my time) and given that the project had run for 4 years, it would have made sense to have held reviews for earlier stages nearer to the time, when the right people were available. Then the scope would have been more manageable.

All main groups were invited; most were represented. Importantly, the business stakeholder and key business user represented had both been involved throughout so we had continuity. A QA auditor was present, who had not been personally involved, to ask searching questions from a neutral standpoint. It was interesting that the groups who had contributed disproportionately to the things that didn’t go so well chose not to attend.

The best thing about this review was that it was carried out in a good spirit. There was no confrontation or finger-pointing. A genuine attempt was made to highlight both the good and the bad. As a supplier (and the only external person present for much of the meeting) I was considered to be part of “the team” and treated like anyone else.

I wonder whether the impetus to hold this meeting was partly because the project was successful – it achieved its ultimate goal on time (just) and within budget, the only one of a dozen or so major projects running during the same period to do so. Would the meeting have been so positive if we had failed? What were the other reviews like, I wonder? Did they even happen?

The output of the meeting was complied into a comprehensive report. I’m unlikely to be in a position to judge whether any long term benefit accrues. Even if the more strategic lessons are dodged by senior management, at least we recorded some of the lower level lessons that are within the power of a project team to influence.

My own view having taken part is that it was well worth my time, and I wish it happened more often. Several of those present are continuing to work together in a follow-on project, and can take some of the lessons learned to improve things going forwards.

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