Systemic Project Evaluation & Retrospective

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TL;DR

We add 3 crucial factors to usual project evaluations, to make them more systemic and robust, while keeping them simple to use.

  1. Behavior-over-time, to facilitate discussion and give a temporal view to events.

  2. ‘Next steps’ broken down into actions, processes and mindsets, to tackle root causes at various levels.

  3. Personal reflection, focusing on individual learning and impressions.

Read on to see how to use these 3 factors, and how they contribute to a more robust evaluation with little extra effort.

Background

We at Whitespace mostly work on large projects, which merit a nimble yet smart review process. Doing any project evaluation is better than doing none. Having said that, most project assessment approaches (e.g. mad-sad-glad, stop-start-continue, sailboat, etc.) are too simplistic. While they seemingly provide key takeaways, these might not be the correct ones. 

To correct this, over the years we experimented with adding a systems thinking lens to project evaluations. Systems Thinking is about looking at the whole, rather than just parts of a project, enabling new levels of analysis. Through multiple iterations we arrived at a solution that can be used in sprint retrospectives in agile projects, but also for more robust evaluations at major milestones, or in project post-mortems.

Give our approach a try, whether you are a lead designer, a scrum master, or a project manager.

We integrated a systemic approach to project evaluations by adding 3 factors, as described below.

1, Behavior-over-time

  • Why it is needed: When you state an observation, it is just a point in time. E.g. “decisions are slow”. It is valid, and can be actioned, but it is just part of the truth. It does not explore a temporal dimension, meaning how it behaves over time. E.g. is speed of decision-making is improving (though still bad), consistently low, worsening, etc.

  • How we integrated: we added some sample behavior-over-time graphs. This is a fancy word for generalized visual representations of how things changed with time. We selected 8 typical graph types. There are many more, but we found this to be the sweet-spot to be granular enough, without getting overly complex. For simplicity, ‘growing’ and ‘declining’ graphs combine multiple growth/decline types (logarithmic, linear, exponential) in one view.

  • How to use: Once the team lists out and groups observations, these are copied or moved to the graph that best describes them. As they are moved, the person moving them discusses why they believe belongs there. Remember these are not definitive decisions, rather discussion-enables and discussion-deepeners. They allow us to discuss our observations from the perspective of time, thus providing more context, getting more input, enabling better actions.

2, Next steps divided into actions, processes and mindsets

  • Why it is needed: A single next step in isolation may be useful, but underlying processes may work against it. And even a process change is useless if our mindset is not adjusted along with it.

  • How we integrated: We created 3 areas to capture the different types of next steps: action, processes and mindsets. This ensures that each type gets special attention.

  • How to use: After discussing a project observation, the group discusses next steps. If the group deems that a simple action is not enough as next step, a process tweak is added instead, or in addition. If that is also deemed insufficient, the team captures how they might need to adjust their mindsets.

3, Personal reflection

  • Why it is needed:  Systems Thinking does not only look at topics in more depth, but also the actors in it. People are incredibly complex and unique, so allowing a space for self-reflection is valuable and important.

  • How we integrated: A dedicated section has been added, where participants look not at the project through their own lens, but at themselves through the project’s lense.

  • How to use: Everyone can add one or more observation about themselves during the project. How did it change or challenge them, what emotions did their involvement create, etc. This gets personal, so public participation is optional. However, people should be encouraged to at least think about how the project effected them.

Conclusion

We know this approach is still not perfect. But we wanted to combine depth of analysis with practicality. Anything that goes into more detail than the above was too complex for people to quickly grasp, or simply took too long. For example, we purposefully omitted a crucial aspect of Systems Thinking: ‘interconnectedness’ – we hope this will emerge through the more detailed discussions enabled through the above-mentioned additions.

So, if you feel you are ready to take your evaluations to the next level, give our template a go in your next evaluation, and have fun digging deeper!

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Peter Horvath image
Peter Horvath
Strategy & Service Design Lead@Whitespace
Peter works on complex problems with large organizations at Whitespace, supports the design community with 24 Hours of UX and Service Design Movie Clips, and teaches the future generations of design-minded professionals at Luzerne University.
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