To get the best out of people, a group lesson session needs to foster the right atmosphere, ask the right questions, and encourage the right behaviours.
This can be achieved very effectively by having the lesson-gathering session(s) run by someone completely independent of the project or even the organisation.
What are the benefits of having your project retrospective run independently?
It reduces bias
You might think the obvious person to lead a lessons review would be the project manager (as the leader of the project). But this may not get the best result – especially if the group thinks that the project manager is trying to ‘facipulate’ the review (facilitation + manipulation = facipulation; thanks to Dr Penny Pullan for this word!). This might be with the aim of avoiding the really meaty lessons to focus instead on coming up with something bland and generic that makes the project manager look good. Or focussing on something that apportions blame to someone who is not in the room!
An independent facilitator has no axe to grind or agenda to pursue, beyond wanting the group to discover as much learning as possible for the benefit of the organisation.
It puts all the contributors on a more equal footing, levelling the playing field
Often in a lessons learning session you have a mixture of people from all levels of the organisation. This is great for diversity of viewpoints, but can lead to some unwelcome group dynamics.
If the project sponsor or other senior people are in attendance, the rest of the group may be afraid of them, or in awe of them (or both), and this can have an inhibitory effect on contribution. The rest of the group may go along with everything the senior person says, regardless of whether that person is right, and whether the rest of the group agree with them. It takes a brave internal facilitator to assert themselves with such a senior person!
Conversely if some of the group are very junior, there could be a tendency for their contributions to be undervalued or even disregarded, and potentially valuable learning could be lost.
An independent facilitator is in a much better position to manage any domineering behaviour from senior people assertively (but politely!) than an internal facilitator who needs to think not only about the effectiveness of the retrospective, but also about their future career in that organisation.
It introduces experience from elsewhere
An independent facilitator brings with them all sorts of experience from all sorts of ‘elsewhere’.
Other retrospectives, other projects, other clients in other industries.
This experience from elsewhere informs the questions to be asked, the techniques to be used, the ideas to be explored.
All of this is gold dust to your retrospective.
It produces better behaviour and more contribution
If project team members work together very closely over an extended period of time, they get to know each other very well. This can work in the team’s favour, as hopefully they will learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to compensate for them. However it can also work against the team, in some cases even producing some mild bullying behaviours that are passed off as humour or ‘banter’. Most teams exhibiting this kind of behaviour are aware on some level that it would not be acceptable in the wider world, so they tend to keep it hidden behind closed doors.
If someone from the team were to facilitate the lessons review, then some ideas may get shouted down as part of this banterous behaviour. Whereas if someone independent, from outside the organisation facilitates, it is probable that the worst offenders will behave in a more generally acceptable manner.
This is likely to lead to a wider range of contribution, and a chance for all the participants to be heard, and seen to be heard.
It enables the asking of naïve (powerful) questions
Most organisations have their ‘way of doing things round here’, that can sometimes create challenges for project teams. Over time, permanent staff members learn what questions they can ask, and what questions they should leave unvoiced.
Often, the questions that cannot be asked are the same ones that produce answers so interesting that they are worth exploring further, and answers so powerful they can produce real and beneficial change.
An independent facilitator has the advantage of “fool’s licence”, and is much more empowered to pose those naïve questions that enable you to ‘discuss the undiscussable’ and produce powerful answers.
It helps you to navigate the minefield
If you are to carry out a review on a project that went wrong, or that faced many challenges, or that didn’t turn out as well as expected, there can be a tendency for any internal review of that project to be a ‘witch hunt’, or blame-apportionment exercise.
In this kind of situation, people have often formed their opinions well in advance of the review, but good learning needs to start with observations rather than judgements.
Good independent facilitation uses techniques to encourage (often anonymous) contribution, and creates an environment makes it easier to explore the issues in a way that looks for solutions rather than blame, and aims to be objective rather than subjective.
This can be very useful if you think that the lessons from your project may be just too hot to handle.
It saves you work at the point in the project when your energy is lowest
Most project management frameworks recommend capturing lessons throughout the life of a project and taking action to apply those lessons to future projects or (preferably) the current project. But in reality, this is often overlooked, and only remembered at the end of the project, after “go live”.
At this point in most projects, the team (including the project manager) is usually fairly tired, and keen to take a break or move on to something new. As such, project closure in general (including lessons learned reviews) is often done half-heartedly, and sometimes not at all.
Bringing in someone independent means you have not only a fresh pair of eyes working on the review, but someone who is fresh to the whole project. They can take on the whole exercise for you, and your participation is as a contributor rather than as a facilitator, which is much easier to handle.