Strengthening the Postmortem

I recently came across a Steve Jobs quote that I love:

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes.

In life failure is inevitable, but it is how mistakes are managed after the fact that is crucial to personal development and a company’s growth or stagnation as well.

Organizations have been recognizing the importance of engaging in a formalized closeout process to determine which lessons learned are most important, and to disseminate these messages to the team as a whole. Learning from one’s mistakes—and the missteps of others—is not a novel concept. In fact, Google’s simple yet effective process for mistake redemption is being replicated left and right. But it’s putting these lessons-learned into practice, and then continually iterating on them that’s the trick.

Earlier this year, CHIEF recognized the need to revamp our own post-mortem process. As we put pen to paper to launch our agency-wide 2018 goals we took a look not just at our own internal vision and values, but what we could do to better serve our clients, ultimately landing on the goal to, take only actions and deliverables that add value to our client’s success. As Director of CHIEF’s Project Management team, part of facilitating this objective meant reforming our closeout process to provide more timely and valuable data that would, in the long run, improve the efficiency and quality of our work.  

As is the case with everything at CHIEF, we wanted to go big and be brave. That meant completely reworking our end-of-project strategy from beginning to end. It wasn’t easy and we are constantly expanding upon the process, but we know the improved ability to learn from project roadblocks will pay off. Read on to learn about the changes we made, and implement them to pump life into your postmortem, too.

Make Post-Project Meetings More Structured and Impartial

Previously after the conclusion of a project, everyone on the project team would meet under the supervision of the team’s project manager. The PM would moderate discussion and delve into the successes and failures of the project. This process for capturing insights was relatively informal and slightly scattered, and having someone who was so intimately involved wasn’t the best way to facilitate unbiased discussion. To improve this system, we substituted the project’s PM with another who was removed from the work and could provide an outside perspective. This fostered greater collaboration and created a more neutral platform for discussion.

Streamline the Opinion-Gathering Process

One of the most difficult elements of any closeout is gathering team-member opinions in a structured, quantifiable manner. Prior to CHIEF’s postmortem makeover, individuals’ opinions and insights were collected casually and as they were volunteered. To ensure that everyone’s voice is being heard, we created an anonymous survey to gauge which portions of a project went well and what could be improved. Members then ranked each item in criticality, with ten being the most and zero being the least critical. This new method provides psychological safety, encourages honest, open discussion and allots more time for team members to reflect on their triumphs and mistakes than is possible in an impromptu meeting.

Don’t Neglect the Victories

Just as addressing failures and mistakes is imperative to organizational growth, discussing what went well during a project is necessary for reproduction purposes (and frankly team morale). It is easy to forget this step, but success doesn’t occur accidentally, so paying equal attention to wins and losses as well as recognizing the individuals who are responsible for these achievements facilitates positive team energy and enables future triumphs.

Organize the Dissemination Process

After discussion moderation and insight collection, it is our job as project managers to help the team determine which three lessons are most important, and disseminate key takeaways to the rest of the staff. Whereas in the past a PM would share this information with a few directors, today it is sent to everyone who took the survey as well as each agency director. Afterwards, one team member per department is responsible for reviewing these lessons one-on-one with their director and department. This encourages deeper exploration into what worked, what didn’t, and what to keep in mind moving forward.

In any project miscalculations are inevitable, but how an organization manages these obstacles should directly reflect their culture and values as well as promote future growth. With our new and constantly evolving process, we’re putting emphasis on the individual, creating a platform for open discussion and fostering team collaboration—and that’s something we can all learn from.

We are continuing to evolve our post-mortem process and would love to hear any insight, tips or experiences. How do you maximize success and use error to your advantage? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, and subscribe to our newsletter for more industry advice!

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