A Project Post Mortem TemplateThursday October 13th, 2016
As a project manager, I’ve always been motivated by the idea that teams can learn from their mistakes to become collectively better. On the other hand, I’ve also been cognizant that if not structured properly and delivered in a way that’s constructive, feedback can be detrimental and quickly spiral out of control.
Enter the project post mortem. The perfect storm to achieve team improvement while simultaneously crushing an individual’s motivation to work with others around them. If used effectively, a project post mortem can be a great learning tool. If planned poorly, it can also turn into an argumentative bashing session.
Unfortunately, more often than not I think it’s for this reason managers are hesitant to use the project post mortem due to its propensity for long term damage. I’d like to share my personal experiences about what I’ve seen work, what hasn’t worked so well, and how to build a project post mortem template for success. Let’s start with an example of epic failure.
Once upon a time, our team at Brolik sat down for a post mortem on a project that was very successful in the client’s eyes, but that became tense (as most projects do) on scope, timeline and features. Having launched the project successfully, we decided to get everyone that had worked on the project to sit down and discuss their thoughts about how the project unfolded so we could improve next time around. It seemed like a great idea in theory, but in actual practice it did not go well. The meeting lacked structure, team members felt personally attacked, conversation was not moderated well and we came out with few valuable takeaways. I learned a few things from that strugglefest and I’ve included them in the project post mortem template below.
Keep in mind that every team has different dynamics and communication styles so you should customize the approach to fit your team and culture. I’ve summarized these points into six tips you can pull from.
Tip #1: Have the post mortem as close as possible to the conclusion of each project
In the age of social media and ever-increasing workloads, we are constantly bombarded with information. The ability for your team to recall specific details about a project will quickly fade as time goes by. To get relevant and actionable feedback have the meeting as soon after the project’s completion that makes sense for everyone.
Tip #2: Create a survey or questionnaire before the meeting to guide the conversation
This may seem lame or unnecessary, but trust me, it’s really helpful. Don’t inundate your team with a 25 question survey that requires a ton of time to fill out. I recommend approximately 10 questions with a mix of yes/no and short answer questions. Certain questions can be required if they’re important, but not every response should be mandatory. Everyone wants to give their opinion whether anonymously, publicly or both so give them an opportunity to do so off the bat. The survey should be due back to the moderator with enough time for them to glean specific insights that help guide the meeting. When done effectively the moderator will be armed with some great fodder to interject at critical points in the meeting.
Project managers are the mediator in a post mortem. Ask the right questions and do a lot of listening.
Here’s an example of a Google Form I asked our team to fill out recently prior to a project post mortem. Google provides analytics and graphs of your team’s answers as the surveys are completed:
- What do you think went well on the project?
- What was the single most frustrating part of the project?
- What changes/issues in our process would you like to talk about during the meeting?
- Were the goals of the project clear to you?
- Were you given the adequate resources to achieve those goals?
- On a scale of 1-5 how complete do you think the project planning was before we kicked everything off?
- Was the schedule realistic for the deliverables?
- Anything else this questionnaire didn’t ask?
Obviously these questions can be more project-specific, and perhaps should be if there’s a particular topic the moderator is looking to broach in the meeting.
Tip #3: Check the team mindset at the beginning of the meeting.
The moderator (usually the project manager) should create the agenda and keep conversation constructive and moving – sidelining particular pieces that need further breakout. Most importantly they should set aside the first few minutes to establish a positive and objective mindset for the team. The whole point of the post mortem is to walk away with purposeful and realistic steps for improvement, not to evaluate individual performance. This is where the background of the survey can help the moderator adjust focus if things start heading off the rails.
Tip #4: Create the agenda and share it in plain view for everyone to refer to during the meeting
One of the best ways to prime your team to speak collectively and positively while sticking to the script is to have an agenda. In the past, I thought the best way to stay organized was to personally hold onto the agenda, moving discussion from one point to the next. I found this to be ineffective. When everyone can see the agenda the whole room is more engaged. It also improves focus and transparency when notes are taken on screen in plain view. The visible agenda serves as a reference point for topics that have already been covered so the chance of doubling up on something is minimized.
I’ve included an agenda format that works for Brolik, but is flexible enough to be adjusted to any team’s specific needs:
Deliverables Recap: This outlines the scope of work or contract agreed to by both the service provider and the client. It’s a great way to set the stage for the meeting without bias.
Web Design & Development: Deliverable 1, Deliverable 2, etc
Digital Marketing: Deliverable 1, Deliverable 2, etc
Photography: Deliverable 1, Deliverable 2, etc
Misc: In a recent project there was some additional work we scoped out mid-project. I listed those items here.
Results Recap: Based on their experience everyone on your team is likely to have varying levels of ‘success’ in their mind. This helps to realign your team with the results as they pertain to the client, the contract and the project as a whole.
Did we deliver on time? Y/N
Is the client happy? Y/N
How did actual billable hours line up with pricing(we use Toggl to track our hours)?
Was there anything that was grossly over or under estimated?
Timeline Recap: I like to do a side by side comparison of the original timeline as it’s stated in Brolik’s contract with the actual timeline that the project followed. This takes some digging, but the information you can extract is worth it. For certain projects I go through months of emails, meetings and calendar invitations to compare the two. Through that process I’m able to identify pain points in the project (as there always are) that inevitably slowed things down and strained the client relationship. Be as specific and detailed as possible, with annotations about how things actually transpired. Here’s a brief example of how you can peg the two against each other:
Projected: Week 1 – Deliverable A
Week 2 – Deliverable B
Week 4 – Deliverable C
Actual: Deliverable A – Sept 1 – Week 1
Deliverable B – Sept 8 – Week 2
Deliverable C – Sept 29 – Week 5
(Client asked for an additional week to review Deliverable B)
General Discussion: No project post mortem is complete without allowing everyone to get at the meat on the bone. Now that you’ve set the stage as constructively as possible, go ahead. If you’ve done your job the conversation will flow freely and everyone will participate willingly. It’s okay and normal to still have some tension. In Creativity Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull says that if your team can’t have candid discussion and accept constructive criticism you’re not growing and doomed anyway, so let it fly. I’ve found it helpful to have a few questions on screen that prompt pieces of the conversation I know will inevitably arise:
- What were the core strengths of this project team?
- What were the biggest weaknesses of this team?
- Did we get the results we wanted from this project?
- If yes, why. If no, why?
Again, feel free to adjust these prompts accordingly to fit your team.
Meeting Recap: Eventually, depending on how in-depth the general discussion goes, the meeting will reach a natural stopping point. It’s important to not cut things short prematurely, but there’s also no need to sit in a room for hours and hours deliberating small details when further breakouts between smaller groups would be more productive. Thank everyone for participating and inform them a meeting recap will be on the way. Then actually send a meeting recap.
Tip #5: Send a meeting recap with key takeaways and next steps
The whole point of a post mortem is to make the next project better. If your team is left without a clear summary and action items, you haven’t done your job. If you were actively taking notes within the agenda during the meeting, this step shouldn’t be that difficult. Formulate the findings into actionable goals that everyone can work toward.
Sometimes these even come as a pleasant surprise. In a recent post mortem for one of our projects, we realized that content creation had been an issue. We had recently done information architecture for a separate client and realized that if we foresee content being an issue, it would behoove us to bring our content modeling process into the fold much earlier. This way various departments such as design or development can access the content model as a central hub when needed. Perfectly actionable.
Tip #6: Think about the details
As a last step prior to the meeting, think about how smaller details will play out.
Phones: You may want to ask everyone beforehand to leave their phones at their desk, unless serving a specific purpose for the meeting (Words with Friends doesn’t count). I’ve fallen victim to checking email and getting sidetracked only to come back a few minutes later and have no idea what transpired in the time I was typing “Okay, sounds great, I’ll follow up later,” to a client.
Seating: This sounds odd, but you may want to think about asking certain individuals to choose a particular seat. People of influence in a project will tend to sit towards the middle or closer to each other because they anticipate a lot of participation. While that is great and encouraged, this may leave others on the outskirts of the conversation, fighting to get in on the action. Communication will be collectively stronger if anticipated heavy contributors sit further away from each other. This way the conversation will carry across everyone in the room, giving each individual a chance to chime in.
Length: This is debatable. Some philosophies say to get everything out on the table. In this case, a post mortem could easily run three hours or more, especially for larger projects with longer timelines. Other methodologies say keep it to an hour, and delineate separate one on one breakouts for a later time if necessary. Most recently, I set aside an hour and a half for our team. We went a little over, but that felt about right. Don’t cut it short, don’t drag it out and keep a good pace throughout the meeting. However long that takes, that’s the right length for the meeting.
I used the phrase “post mortem” often here, but I’ve never been a fan of the terminology. I realize it’s a generally accepted term to describe the meeting that happens at the completion of a project, but it’s also commonly used to describe the examination of a dead body to determine a cause of death.
At Brolik, many of our websites are accompanied by ongoing digital marketing retainers so the project certainly hasn’t died. I introduced the names, “project debrief” “project retrospective” and “project recap” to our team. None of them have stuck yet, but that’s also because we started out calling these meetings “post mortems.” If this concept is new and you intend to try it out with your team, try using a name that doesn’t imply death. It should make the perception of the meeting a whole lot less grim.