Four Questions to ask at the end of a project

#leadershipdevelopment Sep 02, 2021
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

I was talking the other day to a client who is nearing the successful end of a very large and complex project, one that had a high chance of failure. With tremendous effort, a lot of skill and the necessary bit of luck it is beginning to look like a success.  We talked about the importance of doing a review and learning lessons and that set me thinking about the thought process we tend to go through when we do reviews.

Generally, the top three items on the agenda are: “what went wrong?”, “what lessons have we learnt?  “How do we avoid making those mistakes again?” If the project went badly wrong this may be followed by the search for the guilty and the avoidance of blame.

If it went well there is, hopefully, a celebration, generally followed by a quick switch of a tired team to the next difficult project.

There has to be a better way and I think it’s worth starting a conversation about it.

Let’s start by thinking about what lessons we want to learn.  My starting list would be:

Question 1:   Did we have the right people with the right skills at the right time?

If the answer is yes, then dig a little deeper:

  • Were those people having to work 24/7 to complete the project? Do they need time to recover?
  • Was this project just something they were doing alongside their day job?
  • Are these skills vital to the future and if so, how do you grow them.
  • Are these people vital to the organisation and if so, how do you grow them? 
  • Do we need more of these people with these skills?

If the answer is no, then ask:

  • Will we need these skills/people in the organisation in the future?
  • If yes, then how are we going to find/train/enthuse them?
  • If no, then make sure you avoid these types of project in the future.

Question 2:  Did we have the right support in the organisation for this project?   I often hear “well xx (a senior person) thinks we shouldn’t be doing this, so their department isn’t really supporting it.  If the project has been authorised by the senior team, then they need to get themselves and their people behind it.

Question 3:  Did we start with the right budget for time and cost?

Too many projects start by the relevant departments laying out their costs and timescales but when, after the necessary reasonable challenge, the final times and costings emerge, the cry goes up from managers, governments, or any other stakeholders that these are “unacceptable”.

“Unacceptable” is a wonderful word, much used by politicians, the media and anyone else that doesn’t know what they are talking about. Translated it means:

  • I can’t think of a better way of doing this
  • I am not going to provide the necessary time and funding
  • I am distancing myself so when it fails, I can say “I told you so”

Inevitably it leads to exhausted people, failed projects, cost over-runs and the punishment of the innocent.

If this project is one of those, then learn the lesson that the “unacceptable” may just have to mean “this is way beyond our capability”.

Question 4:  Was this the right project at the right time?

Too many projects are started out of vanity.  It’s a senior person’s great idea.  I have heard the words “well, he’ll get his knighthood if he can pull this one of” before now, in the context of resource-wasting public project.  It’s not unusual for the project team to feel that the project does not bring much benefit for anyone and may damage their careers if they are involved.   If organisations are to inspire their people than they need to make sure that their projects are inspiring too.