No project is an unconditional success or failure.
Even when it seems like a project couldn’t have gone better (or worse), there are always lessons to be learned.
So the project is post mortem.
A post-mortem meeting is not an investigation. It is an investigation to uncover all the lessons for the future – no chance to blame or put people in their place.
It is an opportunity to ask: what exactly have we achieved? And more importantly, what could we do better next time?
To help your team get the most out of your project post-mortem meetings, we’ve shared some basic guidelines. Check them out below and make your next autopsy your most productive yet.
What is a post mortem project?
A post-mortem project is a meeting that usually takes place at the end of a project to assess its successes and pitfalls. The aim is to gain insights that will enable you to implement better processes for future projects.
A productive post-mortem meeting is an opportunity to fully decipher the course of a project and to dig deeper into why things turned out the way they did.
The main benefit is the improved efficiency. If you do it right, you will identify bottlenecks in your processes and improve your workflow.
In addition, a post-mortem meeting improves:
- moral – Celebrating your victories in a post mortem meeting can bring your team together and create a sense of camaraderie.
- communication – Hopefully, as you unpack what went right and what went wrong, you will discover communication gaps that could hamper the project.
- transparency – A post-mortem meeting invites everyone to share their perspective on the project as a whole. This creates a transparent environment in which you can get to the heart of the topic.
Documentation of the post-mortem meeting
To prepare for your post-mortem meeting, you will need three important documents:
- A questionnaire before the meeting – A questionnaire gives your team time to evaluate the project as a whole. At your end, you can review the questionnaire to identify patterns and talking points for the meeting. More about it here.
- A meeting agenda – An agenda is important to ensure that your meeting runs smoothly. Without one, you might not have time to deal with your top issues. For more information on organizing your agenda, see this section.
- A meeting worksheet – A worksheet is helpful during the meeting to organize your team’s feedback into the right categories. For example, your worksheet should have a section for successes, failures, obstacles, and solutions.
- A summary document – After the meeting is over, draft a document that covers the key points discussed and actionable steps for the future. More about it here.
How to conduct a productive project post-mortem meeting
1. Make autopsies a standard part of your team.
Post-mortem meetings should be an integral part of your team’s process – for the big projects and the smaller ones. Most teams use them for larger projects with definite start and end dates, but they can be equally useful for smaller or even ongoing projects.
While “post mortem” literally means “after death,” your team doesn’t have to wait for the end of a huge, long-term project to benefit from a retrospective evaluation.
When you’re working out a project’s schedule in the kickoff phase, include mini post-mortems at key milestones. These pulse checks give your team a better understanding of the progress of a project – and hopefully identify potential problems before they cause permanent damage.
Once the project is officially complete, don’t wait too long to plan the final autopsy or people will mentally have moved on. In fact, when creating the full project plan, you should plan the autopsy so everyone knows that this is an expected part of the project’s completion.
2. Send an autopsy questionnaire before the actual meeting.
The meeting itself should not be scheduled for more than an hour. Not everyone will have the opportunity to comment, and some smaller (but still important) topics may not have much discussion time. And to be honest, not everyone is comfortable in this type of forum.
Using a pre-meeting questionnaire means everyone on your team will have an equal opportunity to share their thoughts and no detail will go under the radar.
The questionnaire also gives participants the opportunity to organize themselves before the meeting. People can find out why certain things happened (or didn’t happen) so they can bring causes and possible solutions to the meeting – not just missteps or hastily formulated theories.
For example, if a project requires the creatives on your team to work around the clock to deliver their results on time, why did this happen? Was the project schedule badly set up? Have inexperienced people been assigned the wrong tasks?
The responses from the questionnaire should feed into the agenda of the post-mortem meeting and focus the discussion on the topics that had the greatest impact. The questionnaire also means that the “smaller ones” are not overlooked during the complete autopsy.
3. Choose a moderator to keep the meeting on track.
The goal of a post-mortem project is to constructively evaluate what the project team has achieved and what could have been done better.
For this discussion to be productive, someone needs to be polite, focused, and moving the conversation forward. This is where the meeting moderator comes in.
Before the face-to-face meeting, set up a moderator who will stick to the agenda and lead the discussion if it gets out of hand. The moderator doesn’t have to be the project manager or a member of your leadership team, they just have to feel comfortable taking responsibility.
4. Set a clear agenda.
With so many details to deal with in such a short amount of time, post-mortem meetings can easily get off track. Help keep the discussion at bay by creating a clear agenda for the meeting in advance:
Start with a summary the core goals of the project and briefly discusses the goals and key figures set at the kickoff. This part should take no more than five minutes and serve as a quick refresher on your team’s goals.
Review the results briefly. After going through the primary goals and objectives, take a few minutes to review the final results of the project. This should be a simple assessment of whether or not the project met your team’s success metrics. Did you achieve the goals you set?
Immerse yourself in the Why or why not. Now is the time to find out why the project went this way and how the team members are feeling about it. This discussion should take up the majority of the session. In this section we have explained how you can structure your exam [jump to last section].
5. Make sure the loop is closed.
The post-mortem meeting is only one step in the post-mortem process.
The final result of the questionnaire and meeting should be an autopsy document that contains the conclusions of the investigation and actionable insights for the future.
And this investigation is not just about what went well or badly, but what will change for the future and how? What has led to great successes here that we can bottle and use for other projects?
Distribute the post-mortem roundup document to participants to get their signature. Then distribute the department-wide takeaways for future projects to everyone.
Project post mortem questions
- Quantitative questions to assess project implementation.
- Qualitative questions to go beyond the data.
- Subjective questions to understand the employee perspective.
So what exactly should an autopsy examine? There are a couple of different cross sections to frame your request. The basic categories of the investigation are planning, implementation, results and communication.
Within each category, you should ask quantitative, qualitative, and subjective questions:
Quantitative questions to evaluate the project implementation.
These are your standard yes or no questions.
- Have deadlines been met or missed?
- Have we performed all of the services described in the scope of the project?
- Have predefined key performance indicators been achieved?
- Have the outlined workflows and processes been followed?
- Was there a budget overrun?
If you look at the project from this perspective, the central question always arises: Was the plan good? Did we follow the plan? Was the plan bad? Why?
Any quantitative questions you ask should eventually lead back to this overarching topic.
Qualitative questions to go beyond the data.
These open questions should evaluate the project beyond the hard data and planning.
- Did we deliver the work to the high standards that we and our customer expect?
- Does the customer agree?
- Did people feel they had the resources, information, and support they needed to do their own jobs?
- Have campaign criteria or task expectations been poorly defined or communicated?
In both quantitative and qualitative studies, make sure you understand exactly what worked well and what did not.
For example, did you have a delivery date for the customer to share their personas but no built-in review time? Perhaps the client sent them in on time (according to the project plan), but they weren’t enough for the needs of the project.
Or did a lack of account manager oversight lead a new PPC campaign manager to overspend the client’s advertising budget?
Going into the details can help identify the root of the problems.
Subjective questions to understand the employee perspective
Subjective questions help assess how your team members are feeling and can help leadership identify worrying signs of burnout and fatigue early on.
These questions also let executives know which processes work best with their team and help them plan future projects.
- What did people like most and least about this project?
- How was the cooperation with the customer?
- What changes would you make to this type of project in the future?
- How could work with this customer or between certain departments run more smoothly in the future?
- Would you like to work on a similar project again? If not why not?
A post-mortem meeting helps your team to continuously improve your process. Remember that an autopsy that does not affect future action is a waste of time. With that in mind, make sure you follow up on your findings for better results on subsequent projects.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated for completeness.