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
KILL THE POST-MORTEM
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.