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How stories can help teams absorb the lessons of IT project delivery

Good project management includes a postmortem. It’s important for a delivery team to reflect on the project successes and failures – the lessons learned – in order to improve the process for next time. So why does it feel like little ever changes? Where do we go wrong applying these lessons for the future? And how can we stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again?

Never the same team twice

Project teams come and go. Rarely does the same team stay intact for multiple delivery cycles. Unlike the epic adventure formula we’re so familiar with on television, in IT, there’s no dedicated crew who’s been through every firefight and can recite every mission in the log.

Instead, most delivery teams are fresh – they might include a few members who have worked together on previous projects, but they usually bring together an array of specialists with varied experience for a whole new adventure in delivery.

Fresh blood means a fresh perspective and a new chance to deliver in the best possible way, hopefully avoiding some of the pitfalls that have come before. It also means team members learn how to work together as they go and manage new, possibly unforeseen, delivery challenges.

There’s not a lot of time to mull over a long list of lessons learned from every semi-related past project, nor should that be a requirement, since most teams will never experience many of those same scenarios. Instead, the hope is that when a major issue arises, their blend of experience is enough to guide them through successfully.

Hindsight is 20/20

When we talk about lessons learned, what do we really mean? Are they the mistakes we’ve identified in hindsight? The things we could’ve done better? I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that once a project’s over, most teams have no trouble identifying a variety of things that ostensibly went wrong. Have you ever heard silence when asking what the project struggles were? I haven't. Projects end up with a long list of “things we could have done better,” because venting the challenges out loud and formally documenting these items in the project record makes everyone feel better.

But these kinds of lists rarely lead to real, tangible change in any organization. They sit in a file unread until a few months down the road, someone says, “Didn’t we have this problem on the last project?”

Sometimes, someone will have the insight to go back and review the lessons learned on a specific project to see how a particular situation was handled in the past. More often, the team will seek out someone who was on the previous project and ask them what to do. Some will even just power through, cobbling together their own solution.

Why? Because even with a list of actionable corrections to avoid recurring struggles, no organization has the time or resources to implement every preventable measure every team can think of. Nor should they. Delivery would grind to a halt trying to prevent every potential mistake. It would be equivalent to wrapping a child in bubble wrap every time they left the house because they once scraped a knee.

Every project has one lesson

What if instead of a postmortem list, we focused on learning the single most important lesson from each project? Instead of reliving every little bump and bruise they took during delivery, teams should distill their experience down to one key takeaway that will help guide future projects. For example, no matter how successful, every project has one experience that in hindsight, the team will never want to live through again, or that one question they wish they’d asked at the project kickoff that could have saved a lot of time and effort. THAT is your lesson learned.

Everyone remembers a good story

Once you know the lesson from a particular project, how do you ensure it gets absorbed? Remember, good lessons make good stories. A well-crafted, memorable story that can be told at future kick-off meetings is all you need. And it will be remembered more than some item on a list somewhere.

Studies have shown that we respond better to stories than facts. Stories

engage our brains in ways that facts and data can’t. In IT, where we are bogged down in analytics, technical terms, business jargon, acronyms and buzz words, our brains are constantly trying to filter out the noise. Expressing delivery lessons through memorable, meaningful stories will activate different parts of the brain to help the team better absorb useful information.

And that’s why you …

In practice, once you’ve told your story, a few memorable words should be all you need to recall the lesson in future. For those of you who have seen the TV comedy, Arrested Development, my angle is a little like the 'Pier Pressure' episode in season 1, where the father character, George Bluth Sr., uses cautionary tales to teach his children key life lessons.

Hilarious hijinks ensue when he hires a one-armed man, J. Walter Weatherman, to demonstrate the potentially serious consequences of various behaviors. The children forever remember those lessons via the familiar words that accompanied each prank: “And that’s why you…,” e.g., … always leave a note, … don’t yell, etc.

If every project team used storytelling in their kick-off meetings to relay great lessons from past projects – wins and losses – more people would remember the important information and could easily refer to it when the team is in danger of repeating history. That way whole departments may become better able to avoid making the same mistakes over again.

How cShell can help

Let us show you how to extract the one key lesson from any project. We can facilitate a results-driven project postmortem to draw out the key learnings and illustrate how they can be distilled into one meaningful takeaway.

Learn how to transform a delivery experience into a learning opportunity by messaging core lessons as concise and compelling stories that can be retold and referenced by future organizational generations. Help your team remember, instead of reliving, the key lessons from previous projects.

Contact us today to discover how we can help you deliver more effectively.

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