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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kill the Post-Mortem

It's a commonly held best-practice to perform a Post-Mortem session following a project - especially one that doesn't go very well. I strongly support this practice and, along with teams I've worked with, have benefited considerably from them over the years.

One common risk with these, shall we say, charged events is that they become finger-pointing exercises (or chair-throwing if things really get out of hand). The typical objective is to generate actionable insights that improve the chance of success going forward. Obviously a certain amount of look-back is critical to the process but this should be done with an eye towards the future. To those ends, I've found the following to be helpful:

  • Do some info gathering w/a broad range of stakeholders.
  • Identify areas to Sustain and areas to Improve. Including items to sustain helps keep a positive focus and is, of course, instructive.
  • Capture the initial observations on a grid (see sample below) that lists project phases down the left and disciplines involved across the top (note the presence of the client) - you can even divide each cell into Sustain / Improve subcells.
  • Use this info to help formulate your sense of what really happened and where you'd like to take the meeting.
  • Don't shy away from your instincts and ideas about what happened and definitely have a strong notion of what positive outcomes will be for the meeting.
  • Preview the grid and your ideas with a small number of key stakeholders and enlist their support around driving towards (not precisely at) your vision of positive outcomes.

  • Choose a person to facilitate the session. Common sense is your guide here: ideally someone who can work dispassionately and has the strength and intelligence to deal with, shall we say, "passion".
  • Be clear about session objectives, desired outcomes, ground rules and keep a parking lot for issues that are not directly relevant or too deep for the scope of the meeting - you are not going to solve deeply rooted agency issues in this meeting.
  • Distribute the grid and share your thoughts on its value and how you want it used (fill it in further, just a guide, etc).
  • Allow for some venting, but keep the session moving.
  • Many process or change management initiatives jump too quickly to detailed solutions - a shared vision of the way things should be is a prerequisite for changing the way things are.
  • Recap findings and next steps.

  • Share outcomes w/broader team
  • Publicly call out strong contributors
  • Implement and educate about any changes to the organizations processes, tools and documentation (or FINALLY commit to creating them)
  • Refer to the session as related issues (or the same damn ones) come up on other projects


Improvement is cyclical and iterative. The best way to avoid the tragedies that drive the need to conduct painful post-mortems, is to start out correctly in the first place (see: post on Project Initiation). Good Pre-Natal activities and health are the best way to avoid the slaughter that necessitates the Post-Mortem.


  1. I find that there is often a bit of grumbling from attendees prior to the meeting. More than a few think its a waste of time. Once the meeting is over though, there is a sense of catharsis and closure that teams find gratifying.

  2. the trick I've not seen often pulled off - is in integrating the "cathartic learnings", into future actions that optimize the process, thereby creating wholesome goodness for all involved

  3. Thanks for you comments Janice/Steve.

    There is always some hesitance for the ill to take their medicine. PM's, especially in an agency environment, need to be careful not to become too strident, otherwise the whole thing can backfire. See the 1/30 post on this topic:

    One needs to be judicious in doling out these naval-gazing sessions. Light post-mortems (something beyond just the PM's bitching together in the bar), can be impactful too.

    I wouldn't recommend a single PM trying to mount a full-on session without additional support. Helps if it's wired into the agency process. Regardless, given enough pain and/or client dissatisfaction, I think you'll find support, or even demand, from the senior ranks in the agency.

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