post mortem

How to run an effective post mortem

Last week I went camping. I loved it. L-O-V-E-D it. I’ve been camping before but it’s been a very long time so I forgot a lot about what I used to know.

I was off the grid for two whole days, which might not sound like a long time but it was long enough. In those two days, I learned a lot about where I needed to make adjustments to make the experience more comfortable.

This brings me to today’s point. A Post Mortem. A post mortem is a review after death. In business, it’s a retrospective of a project, what worked and what didn’t. The best practice after the completion of any project, big or small, is to do a post mortem.

The structure is simple. You pull together everyone directly involved in the project and talk through what went well and where there is room for improvement. Then you make an action list and learn from the project with the goal of not repeating mistakes.

Sounds simple? Ah, there is always a catch, isn’t there?

After my first night camping, my husband and I spent the next morning talking through what we could have done better. This was everything from how we packed, to what we packed, to what time we started the campfire, to where we parked the car. We turned over every stone. What didn’t we do? We didn’t do the number one thing that makes a post mortem unsuccessful. Finger point and blame.

Blaming is where a post mortem goes wrong. It is VERY easy to look around a conference room and say “you didn’t do this” or “you messed this part up”. However, that is highly unproductive and rarely solves any problems. All you accomplish is making your team members angry and slowing down the solutions.

How do you hold a productive post mortem? Lay down some ground rules and be clear about the goal. If you want to review what happened, make sure to state that expectation. If you want to review what happened AND make a plan to do better, set that expectation. Make sure you’re clear and everyone is on the same page. Next, and most importantly, set the expectation that there is zero blame. You succeed as a team and you fail as a team. The second someone starts to say, “Well, Chris didn’t do…” you need to stop that conversation.

It’s not as easy as I’m making it sound. It takes practice. There were times that I brought in someone trained in conflict resolution to moderate conversations. A post mortem on a project that did not go well can get very contentious. A post mortem on a project that went well can also get contentious. Try to keep the peace, stay objective, and be patient.

Even if the conversations are difficult, helping the team see where there is room for improvement is important. The more you work to make continual improvements, the better the projects themselves will become. The better the projects become, the more effective the post mortems will be.

Tell me about your post mortem experience in our free slack group.


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