Running a successful post-mortem

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  May 17, 2018
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Post-mortem meetings, which are also called debriefs or retros[pectives], are an essential key to the success of present and future projects. At their best, they can help uncover insights that allow your team to improve your internal processes, streamline your workflows, and find ways to increase your production and the likelihood of your success.

A post-mortem meeting is a review held after the completion of a project in order to determine what went well and what could use some reflection before the next project commences. According to Simon Heaton, Growth Marketing Manager at Shopify, “When running your own post-mortem, you should always try to answer the following questions:

  • What went right during the project that we can repeat in the future?
  • What went wrong during the project that we should avoid in the future?
  • What should we do differently next time?”

Whether you’re just getting started with post-mortems or you’ve been running them for years, check out these tips and best practices to help ensure that you’re conducting effective post-projects meetings.

Before the meeting

Schedule the post-mortem meeting with other due dates and deadlines.

Post-mortems shouldn’t happen sometimes. They should happen every time. Make it a point to schedule them on your list of project deadlines and milestones. As a matter of fact, when you’re fleshing out a project’s schedule during the kickoff phase, insert mini post-mortems at key milestones. These semi-frequent checkins will give your team a chance to better understand how a project is progressing and catch any errors before they become big problems.

Related: 5 simple steps to more effective meetings

Send out a pre-meeting agenda and questionnaire.

You should create an agenda for your post-mortem to ensure your meeting doesn’t get sidetracked. Teams sometimes avoid including agendas in their post-mortems because they overthink the effort and time needed to create them. In reality, even if your agenda is really simple, the impact it can have on the efficiency of your meeting will be worth the time invested.

In addition to an agenda, it’s a good idea to create (and use!) a post-mortem questionnaire. Some issues might not get adequate air time during your meeting, and some people might be uncomfortable speaking up. Having a pre-meeting questionnaire gives everyone on your team an opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions, and it makes sure that no stray detail goes unnoticed.

During the meeting

Invite a moderator.

With post-mortems, if all you’re getting is a positive reaction, it may be time to dig deeper. To do so (and just as a good general practice) it helps to bring in a neutral third party as a moderator. Inviting a moderator means that your team can focus on discussing the important issues instead of having to worry about the logistics of running a meeting.

Stick to the agenda.

Coming back around to the idea of having an agenda, it’s important to stick to the plan once everyone is in the room together. The moderator should help keep everyone civil and moving forward, and having a solid plan makes a difference when everyone is together for such a limited time. If you establish a habit of having long, drawn-out post-mortems with a bunch of kicking and screaming, no one will want to attend!

Related: Why design operations could save your designers

Start with a recap of the project, the goals you set out to accomplish, and where you fell according the the results and pertinent metrics. Review the results objectively, then begin the “why or why not” portion of the meeting. You’ll want to investigate your planning, execution, results, and the communication throughout the project.

After the meeting

Follow through on actionable changes.

The whole point of a post-mortem is to make current and future projects better. If your team doesn’t get a clear summary with actionable items, you haven’t had a successful post-mortem. If you (or your moderator or both) were actively taking notes within the agenda during the meeting, this step should by pretty cut and dry. Take the findings and turn them into actionable goals that everyone can work toward. Simon Heaton recommends looking at these items in three ways:

  • What do we absolutely need to do?

This is where you identify the problem and the impact it has on your projects. For example, “Our team needs to improve client communication so milestones and key updates are available to all stakeholders in a timely manner.”

  • What can we do about it now?

List some potential strategies you can employ within the next one to three months. For example, “Over the next one to three months, our client services team will begin to pre-schedule 15 minute check-in calls with the client that occur every week.”

  • What should we do about it soon?

List some potential strategies you can employ within the next three to six months.

Get access to ongoing analytics.

Access to analytics will help your team gauge your success and improve future work. It encourages an ongoing conversation about your project, making it more likely you’ll be ready and aware of the need for revisions. On top of that, you’re going to want to know if features that seemed exciting and cool right up to launch are driving users crazy. It’s not pleasant to learn that your efforts have been in vain, but it’s even less pleasant to keep making the same mistakes.

Complete any necessary and relevant documentation.

Ah yes, the paperwork. While it’s rarely anyone’s favorite part of a project, it is still a necessary part. If time to complete the documentation wasn’t built into the project process, do what you can to find the time to do it now. This is essentially a style guide or guidance into your decision making. What you are doing is leaving a trail, either for yourself or for anyone who needs to make updates and changes in the future.

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