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How to Lead a Project Post Mortem Like a Pro

When you hear the word ‘post-mortem,’ you probably envision a scene that involves a dead body. I’m a little morbid, so my imagination conjures a Victorian-era morgue with sickly gaslight flickering over a sheet-covered body. 

What does this Gothic image have to do with a twenty-first century project? In both the medical and project management fields, post-mortems analyze the end of a lifecycle. With the former, you want to determine the cause of death so that you can give families closure or catch a killer. With the latter, you want to know what went right and wrong and why, so that good practices can be repeated and bad ones discarded.

Why Are Postmortems So Important?

Also known as debriefs, project post-mortems are an essential part of the project lifecycle. You sit down with the client and the rest of the team to talk about how everything went and develop insights that can simplify workflows, improve team operations on similar projects and, hopefully, produce results that increase client satisfaction.

It all sounds great- unless your project was a classic sh*tshow that you want to forget as soon as possible. You know what type of projects I’m talking about- the ones that were defining moments in your company’s reputation and took a long time to overcome.

I’ve worked on teams that shied away from project post-mortems because they didn’t want to revisit the number of times that everything went south and nearly stayed there. When your project fails, it’s a huge blow, but it’s also important to learn from what happened. Did you not have a team with the required skill sets? Did you deal with budget cuts by using lower-quality materials?

Much as we hate dwelling on a failure, it’s the only way you can learn from it. Post-mortems are important even when the project was a roaring success because, as I stated above, you can use what you learned to create a winning formula. If you keep applying it, you’ll be headed for the C-suite (or wherever else you want to go) in no time.

project post-mortem

In this blog, I will review some tips that you can use to lead a project post-mortem like a pro. At the end, you’ll have valuable answers to the following questions:

  • What went right and how can we repeat it in future projects?
  • What went wrong and how can we prevent it from happening again?
  • What should we do differently next time?

Prepare a Detailed Agenda 

A post mortem meeting is like any other: without a printed agenda, it’s easy to get off-track. I prefer to email it to everyone at least two days before the meeting, so they can review and be prepared with their own questions and feedback. When they arrive, have print-outs ready for those who didn’t bring copies.

Here’s a post-mortem agenda for a website project I recently concluded.

Project Name: Silver Earth Spa and Salon Website

Meeting Date: September 17, 2019

Time: 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM

Location: First-Floor Boardroom

Agenda 

  1. 2:00 PM: Project Recap: A short overview of the original project guidelines and expectations, as well as changes in direction that occurred at various stages.
  2. 2:15 PM: Outcome Review: A summary of the project outcome, with emphasis on what worked and what didn’t.
  3. 2:30 PM: Group Input: All project stakeholders will discuss the project outcome and what contributed to it.

When you email the agenda, be sure to include the client(s). A lot of project managers will disagree with me here: in their experience, clients use the postmortem as an opportunity to vent and complain in ways that demoralize the team. I believe that client feedback can prevent the discussion and analysis from being too being too one-sided and myopic. Including them also sends the message that their satisfaction is important and you take their input seriously.

One client I worked with was a chronic complainer, even when he was generally happy with our work. I still invited him to meetings, because the team understood his personality and communication style. They listened to the essence of what he was saying and didn’t let any general complaints get to them.

Prepare and Circulate a Questionnaire

Before sending out the agenda, prepare a questionnaire and attach it to the group email. Pose questions that will elicit the information needed to repeat the good and prevent further occurrences of the bad. You want to make sure that the post-mortem is spent discussing these highs and lows instead of identifying them.

Sample questions include:

  • What were the biggest communication barriers between the team and the client?
  • Were all stakeholders aware of changes or updates? 
  • Did everyone understand the project goals and deliverables?
  • Was the schedule realistic?
  • Were challenges or changes handled effectively?
  • How could (problem type) be handled more effectively in the future?

Begin on a Positive Note

When you start the meeting, always do so on a positive note. Doing so inspires confidence and encourages participation. Recap what the original project expectations were and indicate which ones were met. The resulting feeling of accomplishment can prevent mass discouragement when the negative points are presented for discussion. 

Starting with negative input can cripple the rest of the discussion: I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty. Even if the project was a failure overall, acknowledging what did go right can prevent the postmortem from becoming a gripe session.

Refrain From Finger-Pointing

I’ve participated in post-mortems that were essentially witch hunts. Individual team members were named and shamed in ways that it pains me to recall even now. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the blaming: never let the meeting degenerate into a series of personal attacks.

If something went wrong, what you want to do is identify what went wrong and why. If deadlines were missed or cost overruns exploded the budget, identify the reason without making it personal. 

Did Charlene the graphic designer submit her work a week late because the client kept changing their mind? Make it a communication or expectations issue instead of a mess created by Charlene or the client. Otherwise the people involved will become defensive and engage in petty arguments with everyone else. 

State at the beginning that post-mortems are learning opportunities. Although mistakes will be discussed, no one is going to be persecuted or professionally disciplined for them. The point is to help everyone understand what went wrong and how they can prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

Do a Deep Dive

When you’re conducting a post-mortem for a project, it’s reasonable to spend time reviewing the circumstances surrounding that specific project and its outcome. Don’t forget, though, that many of the project events are the result of team or organizational processes. If there were problems, they can likely be traced back to flaws in these processes or strategies.

To prevent them from affecting future projects, do a deep dive and identify their sources. This way, you can devise solutions to improve or change that area of your agency’s operations or project management strategies.

How Do You Write a Project Post Mortem?

All post-mortems should be documented. To do that, designate someone to take notes throughout the meeting and email them to you afterward. They should be able to capture the essence of all topics discussed, including:

  • All successes
  • All problems or challenges
  • Action items for future implementation

The post-mortem writeup will inform those who were unable to attend the meeting and act as a point of reference when you develop action plans for process improvement. Set aside some time as soon as possible to review the notes and identify root causes. For example:

  • Did the client change the project direction frequently, making progress difficult?
  • Were some team members overburdened while others didn’t have enough to do?
  • Did the team have trouble communicating with the client or vice-versa?

Once I come up with a list of challenges, I devise some potential strategies and the incremental steps involved in implementing them. For example: “Starting next project, our web development project team will use Teamweek to create timelines and milestones, allocate tasks, and measure progress.” Then I share my action plan with the team and agency management to get their feedback, make them aware of the proposed changes, and get the buy-in needed to make them work.

A note: you don’t need to be managing huge projects with massive budgets and large teams to benefit from a post-mortem. I carry them out routinely in my freelance business, even if the client and I are the only stakeholders. They give me the insights and direction I need to stay successful.

Conclusion

Due to their evaluative nature, post-mortems are powerful tools for project managers. When you document the results of each project, you’re able to repeat successes and ensure that inefficiencies are not repeated. Your team will also be inspired to improve in ways that increase project success and client satisfaction.

If you don’t do a post-mortem, the project will come back to haunt you. Now we’re getting into zombie territory, but that’s for another blog post…

December 19, 2019

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