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project post mortem

The benefits of post-mortem meetings & how to conduct them

Reading time: about 6 min

Post-mortem meetings review a project from start to finish to determine what went right and what can be improved. The meeting should help members of the team identify process improvements and ensure inefficiencies are not repeated in the future. 

We’ll walk you through how to conduct an efficient project post-mortem and answer common project post-mortem questions so your processes can continue to improve over time.

Preparing for a project post-mortem

The best post-mortems are the most organized. If your business has never conducted a post-mortem, the first meeting may feel a bit awkward. But you can do this: just follow the steps.

1. Organize the agenda 

Honestly, the real heavy lifting only needs to happen once. Once you’ve established an agenda the first time, you can just tweak it for subsequent meetings. Your agenda will likely include:

  • What worked (wins)
  • What didn’t work (losses)
  • Outcomes (did you accomplish what you set out to do?)
  • Suggestions to improve
  • Next steps

To save time, you may consider sending out an anonymous survey to your meeting participants before the post-mortem to ask them their opinions of what worked and what didn’t. The anonymity of a survey can often garner more honest feedback, and the survey itself will help you save time during the meeting, as you can jump into immediately discussing improvements and next steps. This survey will also help you determine the meeting agenda.

2. Assign a moderator 

This is usually the project manager, but you might also have a separate meeting facilitator who is a more neutral party. The moderator’s job is to keep the meeting on topic, send out the agenda before the meeting, and give a high-level recap of the project.

3. Set rules for the meeting 

As you may have guessed, setting parameters are key to conducting a post-mortem analysis. Here are some popular rules:

  • Keep it objective. Don’t name anyone or assign blame.
  • No phones and no laptops to cut down on distractions.
  • Keep it positive. 

4. Celebrate wins 

Ever had a personal trainer? If so, you know you’re more likely to lift heavier when you receive positive encouragement rather than having your trainer point out your stomach flab every time you do a pushup. 

The same thing applies to projects: encouragement is much more motivating than disparagement. Consider designating time during the post-mortem meeting to go around the room and identify wins from each individual. Be specific and thank each person for their individual contributions. This kind of recognition will help your team members feel valued.

5. Assign a notetaker 

This is especially important if you’ve decided to ban laptops and phones from the post-mortem review. The notetaker should take diligent notes during the meeting. After the meeting, the notetaker needs to polish up the notes, indicate next steps (including who’s responsible for each step).

The benefits of a project post-mortem review

This whole post-mortem process may seem like a bit of a chore. After all, there’s another project waiting in the wings, and there’s always something more to be done. But taking the time to conduct a post-mortem pays dividends:

Improve efficiency 

A pit crew is able to work quickly and efficiently because they’ve analyzed how to cut down seconds and milliseconds during a pit stop. Similarly, the more comfortable your team becomes with a process and the more times they’ve analyzed the process to improve it, the more efficient your projects will become.

Improve morale 

In the middle of a project, your team may feel frustrated. They’ve likely encountered roadblocks, and there were probably long nights spent working through issues. Having a post-mortem helps your team zoom out to see the end result of all that hard work, and that ultimately boosts their morale. They’ll be more excited to work on the next project and remember that after the frustration comes the satisfaction of a job well done.

Ramp up teamwork 

Post-mortem meetings help your teams become better acquainted with each other. They better understand each other’s capabilities and preferred learning styles, and ultimately work as a cohesive unit.

Identify mistakes 

This might seem like a sensitive subject, and approached incorrectly, your post-mortem can take on a negative feel. But the truth is, mistakes are invaluable learning opportunities. Once you’ve identified mistakes from an objective view, your team will likely not repeat the same mistake again.

Provide closure to projects 

There’s a huge benefit to creating a ritual that signals the end of a project. Your post-mortem meeting signals to your team that the project is fully done: there’s no need to worry about loose ends or wake up in a cold sweat at night over the deadline. Incorporating post-mortems as a way of providing closure to your projects will provide a sense of accomplishment and a sense of finality.

Celebrate successes 

Post-mortems aren’t about just focusing on mistakes or analyzing processes to make improvements; they’re also about shining a spotlight on wins. As you continue to become more accustomed to post-mortems, you’ll be able to have more and more to celebrate. That makes post-mortem meetings fun.

Document the post-mortem analysis

All the hard work you put into your post-mortem meetings is for naught if you don’t document it. Here’s what to do:

Boost project success and collaboration with post-mortem meeting tools/software: Using templates saves time while standardizing meeting analysis. Keep these templates on a cloud drive so that anyone and everyone can access the post-mortem meeting notes at any time. They should also be able to add insights or notes that may not have been captured by the notetaker during the meeting. Or perhaps, after a bit of time to mull the meeting over, members of your team may come up with ideas and insights that they wish to add later.

Sprint Retrospective
Retrospective example (Click on image to modify online)

Develop actionable takeaways: So you’ve come up with ingenious ways to make your process more efficient. Now what? Your notetaker should indicate on the notes who’s responsible for each action item. You should also summarize major learnings and takeaways gleaned from the meeting. This is the tl;dr version of your meetings that even those with extremely tight schedules can absorb.

Post-mortems may, at first blush, seem like just another arbitrary meeting. But they’re actually powerful tools for reimagining processes and improving efficiency. They’re also something your team can look forward to participating in to have their individual efforts publicly recognized. 

Post-mortem analysis is a healthy, necessary way to keep your team constantly improving. These post-mortem meetings can unlock the efficiency you’ve always dreamed of fostering in your teams and transform your teams into creative juggernauts.

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