how a 20-minute meeting after every project can help you do better work

When you wrap up a major project, do you most frequently (a) immediately turn your attention to other pressing items on your to-do list, (b) file away some lessons for next time in the back of your head, or (c) schedule a meeting to debrief with others who were involved with the work?

If you’re most people, you do (a) or (b). But doing (c) instead can make a huge difference in your work.

In reality, most people don’t debrief nearly enough after a project is over, particularly when a high workload makes you harried. But there’s enormous value in making the time for it, because research shows that simply talking through what went well, what could have gone better, and lessons from next time can dramatically increase the quality of your work in the future.

After all, even when things have gone well on a project, you’ve likely learned from the experience and picked out things that could be done differently next time to get even better results. Writing those up, even as just a quick bulleted list, can be an invaluable resource to have on hand the next time you conduct a similar project.

One compelling example: Harvard Business School researchers studied a group of surgeons learning a new operating technique and found that those who discussed each case in detail and debriefed with team members after procedures managed to cut their operating time in half. Those didn’t discuss and debrief hardly improved their time at all.

Of course, in practice, it can be tempting to skip a formal debriefing when new projects loom. One way to make debriefs more likely to happen is to build them into your project plan from the start: When you’re scheduling out a project, include a 20-minute reflection meeting on your calendar at the end of it – either with the project team if it’s a multi-person project, or even just with your own manager if you’ll be working on it relatively independently. If you have it on your calendar as part of overall project schedule, you’re more likely to do it when the time comes, rather than racing on to the next thing.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    I worked somewhere that was HUGE on debrief meetings, and one thing they did was get a facilitator from outside of the project team. This may seem like overkill, but it was a great idea when the project hadn’t gone well.

  2. Mabel*

    After my first big project, my manager and I had a “lessons learned” meeting, and it was really helpful. I thought I knew what I needed to work on, and she mentioned the same things, but she added one that I hadn’t realized would be helpful (she wanted me to get better at delegating things to other people). I was apprehensive about the meeting, but my manager is great, and it was just really helpful for future projects.

  3. Amanda*

    Sigh. I used to be so much better about scheduling these with my boss in particular and with other staff members in general, but I’ve fallen off in the last few months because I’m so stupid busy. This was a good reminder.

  4. Not So NewReader*

    I wish more places did this. Perhaps it is a “fear” of dwelling on what went wrong? Sometimes in an autopsy it becomes apparent that no one has a solution for a problem. That can feel pretty defeating, too.
    I find that if there is a habit of discussing what went wrong AND what went right, that eventually even the toughest problems break down and become manageable.

    One place I worked we needed to debrief so badly. It was so obvious. As the years rolled by and no one implemented a recap discussion, I almost was convinced that the company wanted us to fail. If people spent 15 minutes talking to each other we could have cut our problems in half if not more.

    1. CC*

      I’ve worked in a place with no project debrief. One of the things that I saw from that was that while each project manager learned the lessons from problems that they personally saw, and fixed those problems in their designs, they weren’t reliably communicated to the other project managers, so designs started to diverge and which problems a design had depended on who had done it. Another was that implementation notes never got back to the designers, so the same mistake kept being made in the design phase and fixed in the implementation phase, which cost extra time and money.

      But we had no time for a debrief.

  5. BullyFree*

    I have found this to be quite valuable in the past. Even if you work fairly independently, taking the time to file your notes and processes with final documents, will save you so much time in the future.

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