If you’ve been a part of any project, you know things don’t always go as planned. Even if you finished on time and under budget, there’s a good chance you can always find better ways to run projects.
The best way to assess your work is to conduct a project post-mortem meeting (also called a retrospective meeting for those of you who get a certain feeling when you hear the word post-mortem).
Let’s take a closer look at what a post-mortem meeting is.
What is a project post-mortem meeting?
A post-mortem meeting is a team gathering that takes place at the end of a project where the group examines the challenges and successes of the endeavor. There are a few ways to run this meeting, but it’s most important to keep your focus on the main goal: to find better ways to work together.
In this post, we’ll give you the tools you need to prepare for, moderate, and follow-up on your own project post-mortems, including:
- The benefits of project post-mortem meetings
- How to prepare a project post-mortem
- How to moderate the post-mortem meeting
- Following up on post-mortem meetings
The benefits of project post-mortem meetings
Many teams are aware of post-mortem meetings and understand the value, but often do not spend the time needed to conduct them. Excuses for skipping post-mortem meetings range from being too busy, not having the budget, and even not understanding how to run a meeting properly.
At the heart of all of this is the organization. You must be supported to conduct these meetings. And companies need to make an investment in improving processes and efficiency. So talk to your leadership about these benefits of post-mortem meetings.
- Gain efficiency: You’ll uncover better ways to approach tasks and projects.
- Increase morale: Talking out problems and celebrating wins will bring your team closer together and get them excited about their next project.
- Work better together: By listening to many perspectives, your team will become more empathetic to the way they all work.
- Learn from mistakes: It’s a time to inspect what went wrong and find better ways to approach projects moving forward.
- Provide closure: This meeting can be a single step in officially closing the books on projects.
- Share information internally: If you share the meeting outcomes with the rest of your organization, you will help inform better practices and create a valuable dialogue about how you work within your organization (not just with your team).
- Celebrate the successes: It’s not just a meeting set up to talk about the negative things.
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How to prepare a project post-mortem
There are several ways to conduct a post-mortem meeting, and a couple are explored below. But, as you may have realized already, it’s important to have a method for how you approach the meeting before jumping in. Sure, informal gatherings are great to suss out issues. But a post-mortem should be more organized in order to gain the most out of your already precious time.
Organize your post-mortem agenda
Before you get into a post-mortem meeting, be sure that you’ve sorted out the most important talking points. If you want to maximize your time, you’ll get the team’s thoughts first and then organize your meeting agenda.
In your post-mortem meeting agenda, you should discuss “what worked” and “what did not work” with your team. Keeping the discussion high-level will invite comments and points of view on a variety of topics.
The best way to stay on track with your agenda is to quickly resolve points of discussion by assigning a next step. Next steps can be in the form of further discussion, a new template, or a new policy for your company. Keeping notes will help you to run through and follow-up on all agenda items.
Do some prepwork with your team
Post-mortem prep option 1: Pre-meeting gathering
Sit down for a very short 15-minute session in front of a whiteboard and simply ask your team to list “what worked” and “what didn’t work.” Go around the room to let everyone respond and record all answers on a whiteboard.
This meeting needs to be short and sweet, so only list items. Don't get into discussions, you'll save that for later on.
Post-mortem prep option 2: Pre-meeting survey
If your team’s time is at a premium, save the actual meeting for real discussion and send a simple survey to them in advance. This will get everyone’s talking points in advance and let you conduct a useful discussion.
The risk you run when using a survey is that your team may be too busy to fill it out. So if you do go this route, be ready to follow-up for responses. Or, better yet, make the survey short and simple.
Sample questions could be as simple as “what worked” and “what didn’t work.” Or you can go deeper by asking your team to rate overall team performance on a scale of 1-10, like this project post-mortem survey example.
Download the full Project Post-Mortem Meeting: Team Survey, and make a copy to customize it to your project and team.
Use baselines to identify project wins and issues
Baselines enable you to capture a quick snapshot of a project at any given point in time. We recommend setting a baseline at project launch so you have a clear record of where your plan started and can track changes against that benchmark.
Baselines are a great tool for finding points of project discussion in your post-mortem meeting. Look for tasks that fell behind or beat deadlines so you can break down the whys with your team and learn from your own project history.
Typically, you’ll see themes emerge in that first meeting or in your survey. Pull those themes out and create a simple presentation to lead the conversation during the post-mortem meeting.
Create slides that define the overall issue and follow-up with specific comments from your team where applicable. Having those facts help the team remember what was said and can spark conversation.
It’s important to remember that the slides aren’t important, the talking points are. So if creating slides seems like overkill to you, make notes.
How to moderate the post-mortem meeting
If you follow this process, all of your hard work is done before you even step into the post-mortem meeting. You know the challenges and you’ve narrowed it down to about an hour or 90 minutes worth of talking points. Remember to keep this meeting focused, so follow these simple rules.
8 ground rules for project post-mortem meetings
Before you jump in, it’s very important to remember these meetings are meant to discuss issues openly without creating a negative working environment. There’s a fine line between discussing issues and complaining about them.
In order to make any progress, you need to talk freely and openly (not negatively) about how you can improve your process and, as a result, your work. To ensure this happens, set and discuss some basic ground rules for the meeting:
- Bring in a facilitator to guide the meeting. As the project manager, this doesn’t need to be you. If you were part of the project team, you should participate in the meeting. If you can’t get someone to fill this role in the meeting, make facilitation a team effort.
- Keep it light. This is a learning session and should be fun. Kick it off by discussing the positives and celebrating your successes.
- Be constructive, not destructive. State the issue, and focus on the solution. Identify where the process works and where it breaks down.
- Don’t get personal. This isn’t about placing blame or finger-pointing. You’re there to discuss challenges and resolve issues, so keep it high-level. If a problem was about a person, that should have been discussed with that person’s supervisor.
- Cover all of your bases. Figure out what made the project simple, difficult, enjoyable, or miserable.
- Be respectful of one another’s point of view. Everyone has equal footing in this meeting. That means no one should dominate the conversation. Give every team member a chance to share their perspective.
- Take notes. It’s not important to capture every detail, as much as the issue, the solution, action items, and who owns each line item. You may also want to keep track of new ideas so your team has a roadmap for process improvement.
- Abide by the meeting goal. Make it a point to leave with a set of action items and owners.
Make sure your post-mortem meeting is a safe place where the team can share their honest feelings without calling others out.
Again be sure everyone understands the point of the meeting: to walk away with solid learnings to apply to future projects. You must keep the intent at the forefront of this process to get what you need out of it.
Following up on post-mortem meetings
So what do you do with all of those great discussion items? The point of capturing action items and owners is to spread the information and work around. It’s a group effort to roll out changes as you take on new projects.
If you work in a larger organization, find a way to share the meeting discussions, findings, and action items with others. One person can take the lead on moderating all post-mortem meetings and set up regular forums to share relevant information. The more you can socialize the changes, the better your whole organization will evolve its process and practices.
Remember, it’s best to implement change immediately where possible.
Adapt the project post-mortem process to your team
A well-practiced project post-mortem or retrospective process can help any organization. Of course, there are lots of ways to run a post-mortem meeting, so feel free to adapt the ideas here to create a process that works for your team.
Abide by the goals of the meeting. Set your own ground rules and—most importantly—follow through on them. You’ll find yourself learning continuously, improving often, and feeling much better about work.
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