• Bill Petrie

The Project Postmortem

Five reasons to review every project after completion

Client projects can take weeks, months, or even years. When the launch date finally arrives, everyone is usually ready to move on and tackle the next project. However, there is one more essential phase before any project is truly complete: the postmortem. A postmortem is a meeting held shortly after the completion of every project where all team members explore what did and didn’t work and attempt to consolidate the lessons learned.

From a distance, it’s easy to agree, in principle, that postmortems are good for improving the overall organization – which is why it’s so interesting how much people generally dread them. Many feel that they’ve learned what they could during the execution of the project, so they are happy just moving on. Problems that arise in postmortem meetings are frequently personal, which is why most are eager to avoid revisiting them. The fact is, people would rather talk about what went right than what went wrong. It’s simply part of the human condition to avoid unpleasantness. However, this type of thinking is a mistake.

Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they are lacking. Postmortems can be a way to achieve that understanding.

There are five reasons to do a postmortem after every project:

  1. Consolidate Learnings – While it’s true that much is learned while working on a project, the lessons aren’t always accessible. An individual may have excellent insight but not have the time to share it. A process might be flawed, but there isn’t time to address it due to a deadline. Holding a postmortem is a way of aggregating all that was learned before it’s forgotten. Furthermore, it provides a rare opportunity to do an analysis that isn’t possible in the moment.

  2. Teach Others – Even if everyone involved in a project understands the learnings from it, a postmortem is an excellent way of passing the positive – and cautionary – lessons to people who were not part of the project. Much of what we learn is the result of hard-fought experience. A postmortem provides a forum for others to learn and, just as important, challenge the logic behind certain decisions.

  3. Eliminate Resentment – Many things that go wrong during a project are caused by misunderstandings, miscommunications, or simple mistakes. Left unchecked, these can lead to resentments that can poison a culture. A postmortem provides a forum to express frustrations respectfully, let them go, and truly move forward in the spirit of collaboration.

  4. Force Reflection – The postmortem meeting is about getting people to think and evaluate. The time spent preparing for a postmortem is just as valuable as the meeting itself. In other words, simply scheduling the postmortem meeting forces self-reflection among the participants. If a postmortem represents an opportunity to discuss challenges openly, the pre-postmortem sets the stage for a successful discussion. The majority of the value derived from the project autopsy resides in the preparation leading up to it.

  5. Pay It Forward – In a postmortem, questions that should be asked on the next project can be raised. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect a postmortem to uncover all the correct answers, but if the right questions can be framed, people will be well-armed as they move forward to the next project.

I’ve attended many postmortem meetings during my career – some were profound while others were an abject waste of time. When postmortems go sideways, it’s usually because they have been conducted in the same manner after every project. Postmortems are about the lessons learned, so if the same format is used, the same lessons tend to be uncovered, which isn’t much help to anyone. Even if the developed structure works well, people will know what to expect the next time and will tend to manipulate it moving forward. To keep things fresh, try “mid-mortems” during a long project or narrow the focus of a postmortem to specific topics.

Besides the valuable operational lessons learned in a well-run postmortem, the lasting feelings should be engagement and teamwork. When a group comes together to candidly rethink the way things are done, openly challenge long-held ideas, and learn from the mistakes made to improve the process, the ways things are unexceptional can be changed. This, in turn, reduces client friction and fosters a culture of continual improvement.

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