Stop, Look and Learn: Tips for Conducting Project Debriefs

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We all know that feeling: as soon as one project wraps, it’s time to move on to the next. Our focus and energy shift elsewhere, and the opportunity to debrief the work we just completed fades. We know that stopping to reflect on how a project went would ultimately improve the quality of our work and save time on future projects, yet it often feels like we don’t have time to make it happen.

At the Schusterman Family Foundation, we’ve been experimenting with ways to break this cycle.

In particular, our National Education team, assisted by former Director of Education Kristi Ransick, circulated a worksheet that’s been helping us make debriefing an integral part of our project plans. Already, we’ve found that by routinely coming together to reflect on our work, we’re expanding our lessons-learned and building our Foundation’s “collective memory” and institutional knowledge.

Here are some of the tips and guiding questions that we’ve been using to kickstart our discussions:

Key Tips:

  • Make sure debrief discussions are timely (our Education team recommends finding time within one month of the close of a project to come together).
  • Invite all relevant team members to be part of the debrief discussion.
  • Emphasize that these discussions are about learning, not about placing blame for any missteps or assessing any one individual’s performance.
  • Document your discussion so that staff members can review the notes before embarking on similar projects.

Five Guiding Questions:

1. What were we trying to accomplish?

Start by restating your objectives and project goals.

2. What were our results?

Discuss the quality of the results and whether or not they met the expectations of internal and external stakeholders. Share any feedback that you received from team members or participants. Consider asking: what should we start, stop or continue doing to achieve the results we want? The more concise and practical the suggestions, the better.

3. What worked well?

Consider the various components involved in accomplishing the project. Was your team able to build successful relationships, project plans, systems and/or content? Were processes clear, logical, efficient and appropriate for the scale of the task? Did team members feel supported and valued? We find that focusing on the “wins” first, helps get the discussion moving in a positive direction.

4. What could have gone better? 

It is also important to consider the weaknesses in your program plan and execution. Where did the systems break down? Where were the pain points when it came to both processes and results? Again, what should you start, stop or continue doing to strengthen your work?

5. What did we appreciate?

Were there team members who went above and beyond to help accomplish a task? Where did people shine? This is a great moment to share positive feedback and words of encouragement with your team.

Consistent opportunities to reflect give people the chance to identify lessons to remember for next time, celebrate wins, define opportunities for improvement and share takeaways with other team members. We’re excited to continue our learning process and discover more ways to evolve our routines and improve the flow of our work. We’ll also be turning to our partners for more examples of how they make debriefing a priority and glean important lessons from their experiences.

After all, the more we look back, the sharper our vision will be in the future. 


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