August 2, 2022
General
Mae Angeline

8 Typical Project Post-Mortem Mistakes & How You Can Avoid Them

Many people dread doing a project post-mortem. But done well, they are great tool for future improvement. Here's how to avoid the mistakes that could derail your project post-mortems.

Completing a project is one of the greatest feelings in project management. You and your team worked long and hard, and now that the deliverables are in, it's time to celebrate. But before you start painting the town red, there is still one last piece of work: the project post-mortem process.

Many people dread their project debrief, and it's easy to see why. Tensions can run high in the team under the pressure of the deadline, and all too often what starts as constructive criticism dissolves into the blame game.

So how do you run a project post-mortem that improves your processes and your team's morale? In this article, we'll look at eight mistakes that sabotage the post-mortem process, and how to avoid them.

What is a project post-mortem meeting?

A project post-mortem is a type of retrospective meeting that takes place after a project ends. In the actual meeting, the project manager gathers the project team to examine the project from start to finish and discuss process improvements.

In the meeting, the team looks at the aspects of the project that went well and, more importantly, where things fell short.

What is the purpose of a project post-mortem?

The primary goal of a project post-mortem is to improve efficiency. Unlike the agile project management process, where project retrospective meetings are held and acted upon regularly throughout the project cycle, post-mortem meetings don't contribute to this project's success, but to the systems that will determine the success of the rest of your pipeline.

A post-mortem meeting is not about finger-pointing or focusing on the negative things that transpired during the project. Instead, it discusses vital details that may have been missed throughout the project and unpacks better approaches to tasks.

While the main focus is to ensure the same mistakes won't be repeated in the next project, post-mortems are also helpful to improve morale across the team. During this process, the team members review the project's pitfalls and celebrate wins. As a result, the team becomes more empathetic towards their colleagues, which helps them work together better on future projects.

The biggest project post-mortem mistakes (and what you should do instead)

Looking at your project timeline and project log is not enough to get a complete picture of what happened during the project lifecycle. It is essential to run a project post-mortem to understand better how your project went.

To help you make the most of your post-mortem meetings, we've listed the eight most common project post-mortem mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

Mistake #1 | Not meeting as soon as the project ends

Timing your post-mortem meeting can be tricky. The post-mortem can be overlooked in the project management process, as all the work has been building towards the deadline. By the time it's completed, there's another project waiting in the wings, and it feels too late to hold a post-mortem meeting.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Ensure that project post-mortem meetings are part of your project plan. Schedule them in at the beginning of the project. It's ok to let the team have a little break after the deadline, but don't let the weeks slip past. The best time for a successful post-mortem meeting is a few days after a project has ended, while the project is still fresh in your team's mind.

Mistake #2 | Not including the right people

After project completion, often it's only the leadership team and project managers who convene to discuss their views. While this can be efficient, there is a risk that it can be ineffective, as there may be key details that the leaders aren't aware of. Worse, a team who is not represented may take the blame for bottlenecks or other delays, without being able to present their perspective.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Ensure the entire project team participates in post-mortem meetings, not just the leaders. All facets of the project can be reviewed when everyone is in attendance.

In some situations, it may be a good idea to invite the client to the post-mortem meeting. While some may argue that a client's honest feedback can hurt the team, client inclusion allows you and your team to see what the project experience was like in your client's eyes.

Mistake #3 | Not bringing in a moderator

An unbiased moderator is a key part of a successful post-mortem meeting. People often focus more on what went wrong than on what went right, and this can create a hostile atmosphere.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Assign a meeting moderator before the in-person meeting. The moderator's job is to facilitate and keep the discussion organized. As arguments arise, and the post-mortem meeting is at risk of getting derailed, it's the moderator's role to lead the participants back in the right direction.

It's best if the moderator is someone who has knowledge of the project, but has not taken an active role. If they have been actively involved, they need to be able to remain neutral.

Mistake #4 | Not preparing the proper documentation

Your post-mortem review will not be successful if you don't have the right materials in front of you. Faced with an empty table, your team will spend more time arguing over forgotten details of the project, rather than digging deeper into why certain things turned out the way they did (or didn't).

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Before you hold post-mortem meetings, prepare the following:

  • Post-mortem questionnaire: Survey your team before your meeting. Providing a set of post-mortem questions creates an equal playing field for them to share their thoughts.
  • Post-mortem meeting agenda: The agenda highlights the areas that need to be discussed based on the responses to the pre-meeting questionnaire.
  • Supporting documents: These will depend on the issues you want to discuss. For example, if the project went over budget, you may want to prepare an accounts summary for review. Similarly, the project schedule, resource plan, or client's feedback may be useful materials.
  • Meeting worksheet: This is used during the meeting to manage the team's feedback.

Together, this documentation will make your project post-mortem efficient and effective.

Mistake #5 | Not having a clear agenda

A meeting without an agenda poses two major risks. Firstly, meeting participants may start thinking the worst if they don't know what to expect, and this can discourage some employees from speaking up. Secondly, the meeting is far more likely to go off-track if there is no written guideline of the topics and timings for the day.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Set rules and share them before the meeting to save time and ensure the focus is clear. Provide everyone with the actual talking points of your post-mortem. In the same way that your project's financial management would go off-track if you tried to watch every metric at once, your post mortem needs to be focused.

Here is an example of a clear meeting agenda:

  • Introductions
  • Project recap - briefly go over the main objectives, goals, and metrics.
  • Results overview - evaluate how successful the project was.
  • Open discussion - discuss the highs and lows of the project.
  • Clarify learning points and action points.

Mistake #6 | Not creating opportunities for everyone to speak

It's easy for a post-mortem meeting to be dominated by a couple of participants, especially if they have a very defined view of what went wrong in the project, and what the team should do differently next time. However, creating space for the whole team's perspective means that you will get a contextualized, 360° understanding of what happened.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Before the meeting begins, reiterate the basic ground rules: speak one at a time, feedback should be actionable and specific, and this is not the place to assign blame or air personal gripes.

Keep the atmosphere of your meeting relaxed. During the open discussion, start with the positive things, including the objectives that were met. Then, have open-ended questions to help identify aspects of the project that the team may or may not have noticed.

Mistake #7 | Not agreeing on an actionable progress point

During the meeting, actionable items will come up. If open items are left on the table, no one might take responsibility as it means additional work.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Action points raised during the post-mortem meeting should be assigned to specific people, with deadlines. This way, everyone knows who is accountable and the members assigned realize they are responsible moving forward. The note taker should pay close attention and use the meeting worksheet to record anything that needs to be addressed.

Mistake #8 | Not sending a follow-up for reflection

Past projects can easily be forgotten as other projects take over their time. At the end of a post-mortem meeting, most team members are ready to move on, and there's a risk that whatever was discussed during the project post-mortem meeting could fall through the cracks.

INSTEAD, DO THIS...

Create a meeting recap or report based on the meeting discussion and your post-mortem analysis. Highlight the key findings, lessons learned, and assessments of the project. If any process improvements have been agreed, make it clear how and when these will be implemented. Share the report with the team and make it available across the entire organization to make the takeaways accessible for future projects.

Post-mortems: setting your future projects up for success

Let's be honest; no project is a complete success or failure. Things don't always go as planned, and there's always room for improvement. The good news is that every completed project offers opportunity for reflection and continued learning.

Done right, a project post-mortem can give you valuable insights on how to streamline processes for similar projects in the future – and boost, rather than quash, team morale. So, rather than dread the post-mortem, embrace it as a key part of the project process, which has the potential to boost project success in the future.

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