10 Top Tips for Leading Great Lessons Learned Reviews in a Virtual World

When run well, a lessons learned review can yield big benefits. It’s a great way for team members to discuss how they can capitalize on what they did well so they can do more of it, and to agree on what needs to change for next time. When results are shared beyond the team, lessons learned reviews can also benefit others embarking on similar projects.

The trouble is, many teams approach a lessons learned review as a necessary evil has to be dealt with before they move onto the next project. Many leaders give surprisingly little thought as to how to structure the conversation in way that encourages constructive dialogue, open discussion, and ultimately, leads to better ideas that can be leveraged in the future.

For this edition of Communiqué, I am joined by Kathleen Coyle, Senior Organizational Development & Training Consultant for Partners HealthCare System, who has extensive experience in designing and running successful lessons learned reviews. Here we apply many of the great tips found in her excellent Top 10 Tips for Lessons Learned Reviews white paper to virtual teams, who face special challenges when it comes to designing lessons learned sessions.

If you want to brainstorm quick ideas for improving your own lessons learned review meetings, please email me to schedule a 15-minute complimentary call. We can focus on virtual settings, face-to-face, or both.

    1. First off, if you don’t plan to use the results, don’t bother. If your main objective is to close out a project, there are plenty of other ways to do it, such as conducting some kind of virtual celebration, acknowledging a job well done inside or outside of team meetings, or providing some kind of team recognition. (Of course, you can do all of these things in addition to a lessons learned review.) But if you’re likely to ignore the lessons learned, save yourself and your team valuable meeting time for something else. After all, no one wants to go through what can be a tough exercise when nothing will change as a result.
    2. Decide when to conduct lessons learned reviews. Are lessons learned reviews only run when a big project closes? Does it make sense to hold them in the midst of a challenging project, when you can make changes to help ensure a speedy, successful conclusion? Can lessons learned reviews be used periodically to discuss what’s working and what’s not when it comes to team collaboration and communication? Caucus the team to agree on the kinds of triggers that might launch a lessons learned review, and agree on a process for nominating topics and timing.
    3. Determine the right group of participants. Who should be involved in a lessons learned discussion? Core team members only? Extended team? Other colleagues or stakeholders? Managers or executive sponsors? Your objectives and scope for each lessons learned review will help determine the best combination of participants to get involved. Include people who tend to have valuable insights and whose style is typically constructive vs. unnecessarily destructive. To keep the discussion manageable, you may need to select a representative sampling of participants to reflect the perspectives of others in their groups.
    4. Consider multiple forums for participation. Ideally, you’ll have a real-time conversation (which we refer to here as the “core” review meeting) as the centerpiece of your lessons learned review. This should be kept to no more than 12 people if you expect everyone to remain engaged in a virtual meeting. If you have a larger pool of potential participants, invite them to contribute in other ways. Examples: Set up an online conference area where people can answer questions, provide feedback and offer solutions. (Decide in advance whether online submissions should be attributed or anonymous.) Ask small groups with some common affiliation, such as function, role, native language or time zone, to assimilate their ideas and feedback, with one member representing the group in the core group discussion. Set up virtual focus group interviews and feed results back to participants of the core review team. Ask participants (a subset or all) to review and build on the output of the core review meeting. Make sure that those who were not invited to the core review meeting understand your rationale, and discuss other ways you’ll be seeking their involvement.
    5. Establish ground rules conducive to open discussion Virtual meetings typically need to be kept brief and concise. At the same time, a lessons learned review needs to encourage a certain amount of open discussion. The trick is to help people stay focused and on track, while giving them the freedom to share ideas and debate solutions. Your ground rules should help set the stage for a productive discussion. Examples: Emphasize solutions vs. problems. Balance advocacy with inquiry. Share the air – all opinions are valued and valid. A parking lot will capture items that need further discussion. 100% participation is required- everyone off mute. Say name before speaking. Adopt some of the virtual meeting ground rules you already may be using, tweaking them as needed to help meet your objectives.
    6. Ask the right questions. While there is no single set of “best” questions, there are some tips to keep in mind. Stick to 3-5 well-worded questions to ensure maximum engagement. If you are asking different groups to discuss their ideas, make sure everyone is using a standard set of questions, making the results easier to assimilate later. Make sure your wording and way of asking is culturally appropriate. Pose questions in a way that fosters solution-building. (Imagine the different responses if people were asked: “What are the top three problems you encountered?” vs. “If you could make three changes that could dramatically improve the outcome of this type of project for next time, what would they be?”) Make sure the scope of your question is neither overly broad nor too narrow. Find the right combination of words to break through to people who are inclined to multitask during most virtual meetings. Test the clarity and meaning of your questions in advance, especially if participants do not share a common native language.
    7. Get a balanced view. To determine how best to engage participants during your allotted time, you need to consider several variables, such as number and type of questions, number and native language of participants, available tech tools, extent of prework you can reasonably request, and communication styles. For example, if you have 12 participants and four key questions to discuss during a 60-minute lessons learned review meeting, think about how you may be able to use technology, such as the use of a notes or chat function, to augment the verbal conversation. If you need responses from all vs. some, make sure your questions allow you to go around the virtual table quickly, giving everyone a chance to offer a brief response. If certain people tend to dominate, consider giving them an additional role such as timekeeper or scribe.
    8. Planning for dissonance. In any given lessons learned review, the majority of people may feel passionate about what might be the best workaround for next time, while a minority might be just as adamant that no workaround is needed at all. Set expectations up front about the level of unanimity or agreement you’re striving for within your allotted time. Emphasize the desire to find recurring themes, while paying close attention to gaps that may signal issues that deserve attention outside of this review meeting. As you summarize your lessons learned review, set aside time for reflection as to recurring themes, areas of agreement and disagreement, and possible steps to help close the gaps.
    9. Make it easy to share and build on results. As a team, determine in advance who will have access to your lessons learned results, and what context will be important to provide to those who did not participate in the core review meeting. Be clear on your intentions in sharing. For example, do you intend for results to be simply “FYI?” Or are you asking others to add ideas, suggest resources, or otherwise build on your team’s output? If the latter, consider how best to share session output using interactive forums that allow for conversation, such as portals, blogs, wikis and other social media sites within your organization. Build in easy opportunities for reciprocity when it comes to sharing best practices among teams whose work is similar.
    10. Model the behavior and attitudes you seek to encourage. Demonstrate candor and openness as an operating norm at every opportunity, whether as a team or 1:1. Acknowledge when you’ve had an “a-ha” based on something you did (or didn’t) do, and explain what you might do differently next time. (Better yet, seek ideas from your team.) Encourage people to share their own epiphanies throughout the life of the project during team calls, rather than holding back until an official lessons learned review. By encouraging people to share their own learnings as they discover them, they’re likely to participate more openly and easily later on.

Think of a lessons learned review as a vital part of an ongoing continuous improvement process for your team, rather than a perfunctory event that’s an inevitable part of every project closure. Since virtual teams have few opportunities for meaningful real-time discussions, open up multiple avenues for online discussions, where participants can constantly share, learn and grow.


Top 10 Tips for Lessons Learned reviews white paper by Kathleen Coyle

Leading Effective Virtual Teams – Overcoming Time and Distance to Achieve Exceptional Results, Nancy’s  book from CRC Press

Learn how Guided Insights can take your facilitation skills to the next level, whether your team reviews are face to face, virtual, or a combination

Get more information on our popular Planning and Running Engaging Virtual Meetings workshop series, which are customizable for each client and designed as highly interactive virtual workshops for groups of 7 or more participants.

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Virtual Teams and Virtual Meetings  |  Meeting Facilitation  |  Training  |  Virtual Meeting Tips Booklet

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