The First Rule

August 14, 2011

Agile, Leadership

Learn from your successes and failuresI caught up with an old friend one evening while I was on a business trip in southern California earlier this week.  After spending most of her career in larger companies with mature processes, she had recently joined a company still in the start-up phase.  While she has learned to appreciate that “putting steel in ground” was the company’s main priority, she wondered how they were going to evolve the processes needed for the company to scale.

The answer lies in the first rule of project management (or leadership in general):

If you do nothing else, at least learn from your successes and failures.

Both Agile and traditional project management practices stress the importance of doing a retrospective or a post-mortem, yet in practice it is often skipped or diminished with cynicism.  Too often I hear: “Why bother with a post-mortem?  It just gets filed away and nothing ever comes of it.”  The most significant purpose of a retrospective is for the participants to learn what worked and didn’t work for the team.  If everyone participating takes the learning seriously, the team and the company are already further ahead than if they immediately moved on to the next project without any reflection.

Of course, even more effective is to practice the corollary of the first rule:

Act on what you’ve learned.

Often a post-mortem concludes with an exhaustive list of things that should be done for the next project and it becomes management’s responsibility to implement.  That is often why nothing changes.  There is too much to act on, making it overwhelming for everyone.  If it is management’s responsibility to implement, then what is the team’s responsibility in the process?  The most effective retrospectives I have seen conclude with no more than three things for the team to act on during the next sprint or the next project.  Just like everyone on the team has a responsibility to learn, everyone has a responsibility to do their part and act on it.  If the team focuses on a maximum of three key things that need to be changed or enhanced, then the team is more likely to succeed at those things and will still be able to devote the majority of their attention to the project itself.

So, as I discussed with my friend,  the best thing start-ups and small-medium companies can do is take some time at the end of the project, reflect on the successes and failures of the project and then act on the key learnings.  What results is lean process development – evolve what the team and company needs, when it is needed.  Little by little, the processes will build up and evolve and, most importantly, become core to the company culture because everyone participated in the evolution.

In addition, this time of reflection is a great time to celebrate “putting steel in ground”!

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About Liza Wood

Throughout my career, I have consistently joined companies on the verge of explosive growth and change. From these experiences, I have developed a human, collaborative, and pragmatic leadership style. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog. Join me on Facebook!

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