“You wait too long to play your cards…it’s only time before you lose the things that meant the most to you…”

“Help Yourself”, Postcards (Album), Sparkadia, 2008.

Postcards are still cool. And there is nothing cooler than getting a postcard from yourself that took 3 weeks to get to you from whatever far-flung corner of the earth you were just in. Because you are now home, but a little bit of your holiday has been patiently wending its way back to you. Then you read your message to your future self. It says “I’m having a great time, remember?”. You close your eyes and you remember. Lovely. Just like having saving a bit of your holiday for dessert.

Holidays are awesome. With the envisioning, negotiating, planning, prioritising and budgeting to get them happening, they really teach us how to run projects. The lead-up can generate just as much excitement as the event itself, and make projects fun. But unless we send ourselves that postcard, we might forget what was most piquant about the experience. Or unless we put our review up on TripAdvisor, we might not save some other poor schmuck from experiencing the bad service we had.

Today at work, I ran a Post Implementation Review (PIR). It was to mark the end of an 18 month project, being the implementation of a major learning program for a part of the company that didn’t have anything beforehand. I haven’t run many, a lot due to the fact they aren’t always run. So what gets in the way of PIRs occurring?

  1. Project people roll off. I remember chatting years ago to a project contractor who was about to roll off. She was off to Switzerland to ski for 2 months. 2 months. I asked if she had a job to come back to. She said, “Oh, one will bob up, darling.” I don’t think we ever dialled her into a PIR from St Moritz.
  2. Non-project people are usually really happy to see the end of a project. And they don’t want to look backwards. Change is inherent to projects, and change is emotionally draining. Projects are a unique way of working, and not a place of comfort for those that like structure and routine.
  3. People are scared of feedback on the things that didn’t go so well. PIRs are quite public and they end up as the official record.   They involve senior leadership directly in examination of the day-to-day operational work, a level of detail that previously senior leaders didn’t have to know about. Reputations are perceived as potentially being on the line.

Given these factors, why should PIRs happen?

  1. The truth will set us all free. When the measurables of a project simply must be achieved, the ‘how’ can occur in sub-optimal ways. Relationships with a promised end-date can inform behavioural deficiencies. Genuine concerns – if addressed – can put scope at risk. Spin can be a short-term bridge to that magical delivery date. Toes get stepped on, noses get out of joint and hearts get broken. For those ignored, it can taste like bile in the throat. The capital-P Project just seems too enveloping to call this behaviour out, in the moment. There needs to be an eventual outlet.
  2. The same mistakes don’t need to happen again. There are always projects, and projects never go 100% to plan. Telling that story is honest. Telling the story of how we have learnt from a previous project, and will be approaching this new one differently, is dead-set authentic. Projects engage people’s primal need for hope. You want to give their hope an informed cuddle.
  3. We all need to move on. It’s why we all go to the pub when a colleague moves on. It’s why silly looking hats get thrown in the air at a graduation. It’s why a cheated-on partner cuts the crotch out of every set of pants (except their own) in the wardrobe. OK, maybe that last one is mostly about revenge! But my point is that they are also all rituals. They are a milestone with meaning.

So how did mine go today? It was OK. Here are my reflections:

I’m really happy I prepped.

  • Given the scale of the PIR, I attended a short training course last month to refresh myself on the company project methodology. It was a comfort to have that to fall back on.
  • I consulted one of our project coaches. She gave me some great contextual advice, including making sure I took care with the wording on the PIR invite.
  • I spoke not only to the project sponsor in advance, but also many people involved in the project. To go in naïve would have killed any chance at rapport. To go in knowing what to possibly expect meant I was prepared.
  • I teed up an assisting facilitator. She was up-skilling to run PIRs and was invaluable in adding rigour to my approach by asking me lots of ‘why’ questions. The best process facilitation sessions I’ve run in the last couple of years have all been co-facilitated.

The methodology kind of stood up, kind of didn’t, but it all worked out in the end.

  • We’ve got a methodology for PIRs that asks 10 standard questions. It ensures that not only a retrospective takes place, but that ideas for the future ‘Business as Usual’ success of the implemented project can be articulated. In the allotted 3 hours, we didn’t get to cover every question. Like any facilitated model, your respect it, but ultimately follow the group. By doing so I got the outcomes I needed.

It was the senior leader sponsor’s session, and I demurred to him accordingly.

  • Under our company’s project methodology, the PIR is run principally for the benefit of the senior leader sponsor. This brief is worked out with them in advance, they attend the session, and they are involved with vetting the final report. They are ‘on the hook’ for the project’s success, so they really do own the session. During the PIR today, the senior leader wanted to initiate a line of questioning of the group. I had no problem with that, particularly because he had backed up the notion of a ‘safe space’ in his opening comments to the group.

It really helped being ‘independent’ as the facilitator.

  • The project had scope-creep issues early on, which then had repercussive effects. Metrics were delivered upon, but only by people working harder and longer than originally budgeted for. With permission given to express themselves, people were forthcoming to discuss that; however I wouldn’t have been able to facilitate the emotion out of the conversation, had I been a party to any of the project work.

The promise of food wasn’t enough to get everyone there.

  • We had a dozen people turn up, meaning at least one representative from each of many diverse stakeholder groups. That was so necessary for the session to succeed.
  • One very important group wasn’t represented, and we felt their absence keenly. I’ll now have to follow up with them separately. We need their points of view for the final report to be fair.

A facilitated session is never the total answer.

  • There is a saying that helps when facilitating Kaizen problem-solving sessions: be soft on people and hard on process. I used that expression in my opening framing statement. There are always culpable people on a project for what goes wrong; ultimate accountability always lies somewhere. However, what bore out in my preparatory discussions with people on the project, was that specific names were mentioned based mainly on perception. Those I interviewed were not themselves altogether comfortable in their judgements, because they didn’t feel like they had the whole picture. Still, I didn’t want finger-pointing to come out in the PIR. It wasn’t the forum and it wasn’t the point of the session. First and foremost, anything facilitated needs to be done in a safe space. I promised that on the invite and I had to deliver upon that promise.
  • Because of the above, the PIR was never going to be about articulating and retrospectively measuring explicit individual accountabilities. That can happen in private.
  • In addition, for those who couldn’t make the PIR, I am surveying them individually. This has been made widely known, as it is just as important to let everyone know their voice is important, as it is to value each voice.

The true abiding comfort of a PIR that I have found, is that there is really only one way to properly go about it. Believe in the power of the collective, have the unfettered truth as your ambition, look after your sponsor and – most of all – articulate your ethics at each step as you go along. Opportunities for safe dialogue, for hitting the reset button, for extracting learning from prior confusion… they don’t happen every day. A PIR is just another applied example of the power of facilitation. Now, to write that postcard.

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