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Establish an Effective Project Review Process – Overcome the Obstacles to Improve Performance

A previous article raised the question of why project performance reviews are not universally held,

even though there is wide acceptance that they are a primary way to improve future performance by learning from past performance. In this article, we look at how to address the roadblocks to effective reviews.

Why Reviews are not Held

Among the most common reasons for not holding review are:

  • Fear of confronting failure and its causes – If failure is perceived as Einstein and Edison perceive it – as a stepping stone to success – then there is great motivation to review performance and learn from it.  If, on the other hand, failure is viewed as something to be denied and hidden, then reviews will be avoided.
  • Blaming – If the culture relies on blame and punishment to motivate behavior there will be resistance and defensiveness.  Blaming will promote fear.  It is essential to avoid blaming and focus on the process rather than individual behaviors.   See my May 2019 article Stop Blaming Focus On The Process To Achieve Optimal Performance[1]
  • Negative experience – past reviews have been worthless. For example, they have not been followed-up to implement changes based on lessons learned; the participants were blaming and defensive and blocked any real exploration of what went wrong and why.
  • Lack of skilled facilitators – skilled facilitators are needed to make reviews effective by addressing the tendency of project managers and performers to be action oriented rather than introspective and reflective. A facilitator will enable participants to directly confront ugly realities, not get caught up in blaming and defensiveness and make sure everyone has a chance to participate. Facilitation will make the review experiences more likely to be positive.
  • No time – Stakeholders are off onto the next project or back to their operational activities and the review is not prioritized as a valuable activity and therefore, not scheduled.
  • Lack of a documented project management process – the absence of guidelines and templates makes for unnecessary effort and an absence of useful information captured during the project.
  • Not valuing quality assurance and continuous improvement – if executives and project stakeholders do not value ongoing improvement enough to motivate the time and effort to hold reviews and follow them up, there will be no time for reviews and the ones that take place will be seen as useless.

 How to Hold a Review

To make sure that these causes are addressed, it is necessary to treat reviews as you would treat any important part of the project management process.  Create policies, procedures and guidelines that recognize the phases of the review process – initiation, research and report.  Appoint and empower a review team with the responsibility to

  • Embed the capture of useful data and mini-reviews or retrospectives into the project
  • Assemble the right players (project performers, clients, functional managers and staff, etc.),
  • Collect and analyze project artifacts (for example, project status reports and notes) 
  • Create a set of interview questions for use in individual and group sessions,
  • Facilitate the sessions
  • Evaluate the findings and
  • Produce a report. 

Depending on the scope of the project and the availability of templates, the process from initiation through the report can take from a few days to weeks. 

Note that the review is part of a broader quality assurance process.  The contents of review reports are input to evaluate and improve the project management process.  Lessons learned are truly learned by an organization only when they are used to change performance for the better.

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 What’s in a Name? – Performance Reviews throughout Project Life

In the past, project reviews were called postmortems.  Formal reviews are hard enough to get people to do without associating them with death, so the name has changed.  Now they are Post Project Reviews or Post Implementation Reviews or Retrospectives.  But, those names infer that you wait until after the project is over before reviewing performance. 

Leave out the “post” and call them project performance reviews.  Make them happen as an integral part of the project – not just after it is over.  In other words, regularly review and adjust performance and capture lessons learned so that when you reach the end of a major phase or of the project as a whole you will be ready with a preexisting list of lessons learned and issues so you can discuss them in depth and recommend next steps.

In Agile methodologies there is a review, a retrospective, after each Sprint.  This means that every week or two there is a stepping back to review and learn from performance.  A full project review takes place upon completion of the project.

 Checklists and Agendas

One of the most effective ways to ensure that reviews are useful is to establish guidelines and provide checklists and agendas. Rather than creating yet another checklist and agenda for reviews, use one of the hundreds of templates, checklists and models, including your own project management process model.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Instead, do some research and either use an existing process description or craft one that combines the best features of several.  Here are a few references:

Engage the Team

Reviews can be boring when the same exercises and sequences are repeated or when assertive individuals monopolize the review.  

One paper[2] addresses the need to go beyond standard approaches to use an approach that better engages the participants and results in the kind of useful information that can help make future projects more likely to be effective.

A well facilitated review will avoid simply reading through checklists and reports.  Do not make your review a presentation.  Make it an interactive event at which participants are facilitated to take an active part, sharing their points of view.  

The facilitator should seek to get participants up out of their seats (or actively engaged, if the review is done virtually) to give their feedback.  The Emotional Seismograph exercise is an example of the kind of process that engages review participants.   

If you are doing frequent reviews – for example, sprint retrospectives – vary the way you do the exercises.  A simple web search leads to several ways to do Emotional Seismograph exercises.  Vary the sequence of agenda items.  Vary the facilitator.  

 Emotional Seismograph – Reviewing Behavioral Aspects

One example of a technique to engage the participants addresses the often overlooked emotional dimension of the project.  

“An Emotional Seismograph is used to identify factors which lead to participants’ happiness and unhappiness on the project being reviewed.”[3]  A project timeline of key points in the project life is created with a baseline.  Participants then place index cards or post-it notes above or below the line to indicate whether they were happy or unhappy (stressed-out) at key points during the project.  Distance from the baseline indicates the intensity of feelings.   

The exercise engages the participants visually and physically.  It is a vehicle for discussing the causes of stress and its relief in the project.  It opens discussion of  reasons for different perspectives when one participant reports high stress or dissatisfaction for a point in the project and others do not. 

Notes from regular reflections on the pulse of the project can make this exercise more effective by providing reminders of how things felt at key points so that the impressions of the stakeholders at the review can be evaluated against events in a timeline.  This enables a rich discussion of perceptions.  It invites insights into how what might have been stressful in the moment it was occurring, in retrospect, wasn’t all that bad.  It also highlights the kinds of events that cause stress and opens the discussion of how best to handle or avoid them in the future.

Adding reflections on the emotional state of the project reinforces the importance of the “softer side” of projects – the interpersonal and interpersonal.  Having this as part of the guidelines for regularly stepping back to reflect makes it more likely that stakeholders will acknowledge their stress and how it effects their relationships.

The Emotional Seismograph is one of many exercises that can be used to enhance the effectiveness of reviews. A good resource for finding exercises to use in retrospectives and reviews can be found in 29 Scrum Retrospective Tools for Distributed Agile Retrospectives at


If you want to break through resistance to reviews, work to make sure that candid performance evaluation is valued and enabled by eliminating blaming and defensiveness.

Add to that clear and practical guidelines, checklists and templates and effective facilitation with engaging exercises. Fold in executive sponsorship for continuous improvement.  

Hopefully, as organizations and their processes mature, effective performance reviews as an integral part of ongoing project performance improvement will become a norm.



[2] Ilyas, M. A. B., Hassan, M. K., & Ilyas, M. U. (2014). The Art and Science of Post Project Reviews,

[3] [3]

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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