How did your last project go?
If you really want an honest answer to that, there’s no better way to find it than to hold post-mortem meetings. They can be incredibly useful for getting a full 360 view of how well your processes are working. They’re also a terrific way of streamlining and improving your workflow.
What is a post-mortem meeting?
A post-mortem meeting is essentially a constructive debrief at the end of a project. What went right? What could have been improved? The idea is to use the insights that emerge from the meeting to adjust your processes in order to improve how you work in the future.
Meetings like this are useful in many contexts because they are adaptable to all kinds of work situations. Whether the project was a small one-off job actioned by an individual team or a large cross-functional team collaboration, holding a post-mortem meeting will ensure that you raise your game for the next challenge.
Benefits of post-mortem meetings
While most organizations conduct market research because they are well aware of the value it adds, many don’t use post-mortem meetings as a matter of course. Often, even within companies that are open to the idea, implementation of the procedure is patchy at best.
It’s understandable. Everyone is so busy that just getting the day-to-day operational tasks completed can sometimes be a challenge all its own. The idea of holding post-mortem meetings can seem like a luxury that there just isn’t the time to spare for.
Nevertheless, this is a mistake. That’s because if you don’t analyze where projects succeeded and where they fell short, you’ll be missing out on the opportunity to deliver better results next time. What it needs, as with anything else, is leadership buy-in. Genuine support from senior management can help encourage a culture where post-mortem meetings are perceived as essential.
There’s no better way of getting leadership on-side than by listing the benefits of the process. These include:
- Improved efficiencies: You’ll be able to dig deep into what worked and what didn’t work so well and why. Taking the time to do this pretty much guarantees continuous improvements in team performance.
- Better communication: As part of the process, you’ll identify any existing gaps in communication and explore possible methods for rectifying them. For example, if many of your staff work remotely, some may find they don’t have a chance to speak during large-scale virtual meetings. Knowing about a problem like this is the first step toward solving it.
- A boost to morale: Post-mortem meetings aren’t just about uncovering problems, though. If your team has achieved resounding success, celebrate it! Understanding and reinforcing excellent work practices are just as important as adjusting suboptimal ones.
- Complete transparency: A crucial aspect of these meetings is that everyone is invited to share their own perspective of how the project went. This can often be a valuable eye-opener for team leaders.
Five principles for best practice in post-mortem meetings
Whether you decide to hold on-site or digital meetings for your post-mortem, there are a few basic principles it’s important to bear in mind. Get these right, and you’ll get the absolute most out of the experience.
Preparation is key
Fail to prepare; prepare to fail, as they say. Planning ahead has to be at the heart of a post-mortem meeting, or it won’t achieve the results you’re hoping for.
The first step is to prepare a provisional agenda. This should cover all the main talking points you want to discuss during the meeting. You’ll want to focus on what worked and what didn’t, broadly speaking. Circulate this agenda with your team before moving on to the next step.
The next step is to get feedback about the agenda from your staff. There are two main ways of doing this: either hold a short pre-meeting meeting to discuss it in person or send everyone a survey to fill in.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about this. The important thing is that you get input from everyone who is going to be at the main meeting so that all the crucial points of discussion are included.
Once you’ve received the feedback, you can then finalize the agenda. You’ll probably find your team members come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of: specific challenges they’ve faced around implementing certain policies or dealing with customer relationships, for example.
When you have the finished version of the agenda in its final form, send it to everyone. This lets everyone know what to expect and gives them a chance to mull over their potential contribution in advance.
Set the right expectations
It’s vital to ensure everyone knows that a post-mortem meeting is a space where honesty is welcomed. After all, if no one feels free to speak candidly, what’s the point?
So set a few ground rules. The first action to take is to appoint a moderator. This might be you or it could be someone else on the team. The moderator’s responsibility is to make sure the meeting stays on track and that discussion remains civil. They should have the authority to end the meeting early if things get unpleasantly heated.
The most important expectations to put in place are:
- Meeting duration: postmortem meetings work best when they last around 60 to 90 minutes. That gives you enough time to explore your talking points in depth. But it’s also not so long that participants begin to lose focus.
- Constructive discussion: everyone should be aware that all comments are to be constructive rather than destructive. Explain in advance exactly what this means. For example, a comment like “We were late completing our task because Jake didn’t supply us in time” casts blame, which is unhelpful.
- A far better way of framing this complaint would be “We faced challenges because there were flaws in our supply protocol, so it would be a good idea to revise our inventory management process”.
- Respect for other points of view: During a post-mortem meeting, everyone’s viewpoint should be respected equally. This means that no one individual’s opinion should dominate the discussion.
Ask the right questions
There are three kinds of questions you should be asking: quantitative, qualitative, and subjective. You can use any number of whiteboarding apps to set them down for everyone to see.
Quantitative: This is all about the established facts and involves questions that can be answered with yes or no or with numbers, for example:
- Did we meet our deadlines?
- Did we achieve all our pre-defined goals?
- Did we deliver the project on time?
- Did we go over budget and, if so, by how much?
Qualitative: These are the open-ended questions that you’ll probably spend much more time focusing on. Some examples:
- Did we meet client expectations?
- How can we improve our internal communication?
- What could we do differently next time to make sure all deadlines are met?
- What was the biggest success you achieved for your part of the project?
Subjective: With subjective questions, you’re aiming to achieve a better understanding of individual team members’ perspectives. These emphasize how it felt to work on the project and can be a useful indicator of any imminent burnout problems.
- How was your experience of dealing with the client?
- Did you feel you received sufficient support to meet your goals?
- Did you think the allocation of work tasks was fair?
- What did you enjoy the most and the least about working on this project?
Everyone should speak
This is much easier said than done. While everyone recognizes the importance of obtaining input from the whole team, people have a tendency to fall into natural patterns of conversation. That’s to say, those with more authority or more gregarious personalities tend to dominate the talk. Your voice and opinions are important whether you are an experienced leader within the company or if you are new to the business.
Fixing this can be very challenging indeed. Once a dominant voice starts talking, it can be difficult to stop. Even if the moderator has the authority to step in, in practice it can feel awkward to interrupt someone mid-flow.
So you need to take specific steps to enforce equal time for everyone. If you’ve familiarized yourself with virtual meeting best practices, you may have used one of these techniques before.
First, set a fixed time in advance that everyone is allowed to speak for, and stick to it. This has two benefits. For starters, it makes it easier to get an equal amount of input from everyone. But it also means that speakers will try to focus on summarizing their main points because they know they only have a limited time available to make them.
Another option is to use some kind of “talking stick”. This is an object held by each team member in turn. Only the person holding the stick is permitted to speak; everybody else has to listen.
Follow through afterward
When the meeting is over, following up is vital. During the meeting, the discussion should have generated a number of action points to be implemented afterward. Each of these should be assigned to a specific individual who is responsible for making them happen.
Don’t rest on your laurels. For each iteration of a post-mortem process, you should be continuously testing how effective it is. What is continuous testing? It means comparing outcomes against previous benchmarks on an ongoing basis. That way, you can be confident that the procedure is working well.
Getting it right
Projects vary in terms of how successful they are, but assessing how they went afterward is always a good idea.
Improving customer service, boosting business through innovation, and raising staff morale: all of these can benefit from implementing post-mortem meetings as a regular part of operations. So take the time to add them into your workflow: you won’t regret it.