Post Mortem. Do you get the willies when someone utters those words?

Is it like when you die and your limbs stiffen up? No, that is rigor mortis. We’re talking about project management here, not CSI. But in a way, Post Mortems can be like an episode of CSI in that you investigate your process and figure out what causes project issues. In any case, you should conduct your Post Mortem meeting after a project has ended, but long before project rigor mortis sets in.

No one is perfect. No project is perfect. Don’t ever forget that. I’ve already mentioned that project managers are not robots. We can’t fix every problem—or even know that they are coming. But with the help of a project Post Mortem meeting (and a great CSI team of your own), maybe we can identify the things that create issues within our own projects. With some additional thought and discussion, those issues can be fixed and we can save our teams and clients from a limited amount of pain. It’s amazing how solid evaluation tools and some team collaboration can help you to get to the bottom of your process issues and help you work efficiently. That’s where the project Post Mortem meeting comes in.

[ribbon-light]We know you’re busy, but…[/ribbon-light]We’re all busy! So many people in our business don’t take a moment to evaluate our work. Getting final approval (or check) from a client often times feels like enough to just stop! It makes sense—who wants to spend more time and money on something that is finished? The problem is, without some form of evaluation, you‘ll move right in to the next project and hit the same problems over and over again.  That can’t be what’s best for your business or for your team. Improving the way you work or approach a problem as a team will only make your work and your team dynamic stronger.

Make the time to meet with your team and evaluate your own work. A solid two hours is more than enough time to identify issues and create next steps or resolutions. I’ll talk more about that later on. First, I think you still need to be sold on why you should spend that precious two hours.

[ribbon-light]What good can come out of it?[/ribbon-light]First, it needs to be said: Post mortem meetings are not meant to create a negative working environment. Of course, no one actually likes to talk about their flaws, or anyone else’s, in a public forum. 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 product. Yes, you are going to talk about what did not work, but the ground rules of the meeting should be set before discussion begins:

  • Be constructive, not destructive.
  • Don’t get personal
  • Cover all of your bases:
  • Figure out what made the project simple, difficult, pleasurable or miserable.
  • Identify where the process works and where it breaks down
  • Celebrate your successes and fix your flaws

While the goal of the meeting is to discuss issues and potential changes to process in order to alleviate those issues in the future, you need to keep it light. Talk about what you did well! Every attendee – should know that the point of the meeting is not to point fingers at one another, but to the issues in general. If you set the ground rules and moderate thoughtful discussion, you can make everyone feel really good about the work that was done and energize them about the changes you are enabled to make.

As soon as everyone feels like they’re in their “safe place,” the comments will flow and you will see how great it is to engage your team outside of the project environment to talk about the factors that affect the work product.

[ribbon-light]Add some structure[/ribbon-light]You don’t want to just go in to the meeting and let people talk. That could get your team in a negative spot really fast. Instead, you need to structure the the discussion strategically and make the best use of everyone’s time. In order to know what is important or relevant to the discussion, you have to solicit some initial feedback from the team. You can do this in one of two ways:

Option One: Distribute a survey that collects all discussion points or sit down.

Sample questions could be as simple as, “What worked” and “What didn’t work?” or you could get deeper by asking your team to rate overall team performance on a scale of 1-10, based on agreement (1=I disagree, 10=I agree):

  • Our team work effectively together (internally)
  • Our team worked effectively together with the Client
  • Our team members contributed equally to the project success
  • Our team had one or more members who did not contribute an equal share
  • Our project fulfilled the expectations of our client
  • Our project fulfilled the defined project deliverables
  • I consider the quality of our team’s work to be high in quality

Option Two: Whiteboard the cr*p out of it.

Sit down for a very short 15-minute session and simply ask your team to list “what worked” and “what didn’t work.” Go around the room to let everyone in the room respond and record all responses on a whiteboard. This meeting needs to be short and sweet, so only list items; don’t get in to discussion. You’ll save that for later on.

[ribbon-light]Make sense of the responses[/ribbon-light]Either of these information gathering methods seem to work just fine—it all depends on how much info you really want up front. I tend to prefer just sitting down and listing everything out. It’s a quick solution and it does not require any follow-up. Again, we’re all busy, so adding a task like a survey (instead of a 15 minute meeting) that will get in the way of coding or designing just means that you are going to have to flex your project management muscles and follow up…repeatedly. It’s not worth it to me. But you have to do what works for you and your team.

After you’ve collected all of your feedback, sit down with the info and find the biggest themes that came out of the responses and develop an easy to follow meeting agenda. I also recommend doing a keynote (or power point) to lead the conversation during the meeting.  II like to create slides that explain the overall issue and follow-up with specific comments where applicable.  Sometimes having those facts to fall back to help the team remember what was said, and sometimes can spark conversation.

[ribbon-light]The meeting.[/ribbon-light]It’s pretty simple: you’ll discuss what you’ve already prepared. But, there are a few simple rules to follow:

  1. Have a facilitator to present the keynote and stimulate discussion, as well as a scribe to take public notes and note action items. Also, have fun. It’s a serious topic, but you need to take a fun approach to meetings like this.
  2. Lead with successes. Why not talk about what worked first? Boost the team up and share your successes.
  3. Make this rule clear: No finger-pointing, no negativity. You’re there to resolve issues.
  4. Make sure you give everyone a fair shot at making a point in discussion. Going around the room can be painful, but it can help if you have to do it. Do your best at encouraging active, positive participation.
  5. Leave the meeting with a set of action items and owners. You’ll never improve anything if you don’t act on what you discuss. Note that some things may require additional discussions. They’re worth your time.

[ribbon-light]What next?[/ribbon-light]You’ve met and identified the issues, so what is next? Implement change immediately, where possible.  Maybe you’ll think of a new way to present your work to clients? Test it out. See if it works. Maybe you identified a step in your process that was missing. Test it out. See if it works. All we can do is continue to iterate on what we do and tailor our own processes to what works for our clients and us. You’ll always meet roadblocks, but you’re always able to plow over them as a team. Conversations and meetings will only help you to surpass obstacles when they get in the way.

When it’s all said and done, your projects might be put to rest but if you conduct a good follow-up meeting, your process will survive. With a minimal investment of your time and thought, your own project team (or CSI investigators) will quickly solve issues and improve your processes, your work, and maybe even team morale.

[ribbon]Author bio:[/ribbon]Brett Harned is the Project Management Director at Happy Cog in Philadelphia, PA. He has more than 15 years of experience in communications and creative team management serving in roles from copywriter to account director, but finds the most satisfaction in web project management. Since joining the Happy Cog, Brett has managed projects for Zappos, MTV, and Monotype Imaging.

Prior to his work at Happy Cog, Brett served as Senior Project Manager at Razorfish, where he managed multi-resource teams and implemented creative strategies to produce Web sites and comprehensive digital advertising campaigns for companies such as Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Aetna.

When Brett isn’t wrangling timelines and budgets in the office, he likes to discover new music, experiment with photography, and explore the City of Brotherly Love with his wife and daughters. Oh…and he finds time to blog about things related to project management at brettharned.com.