The end of a project is a wonderful time. You’ve sent over the final deliverable, invoiced your client, and are beginning to think about the next big job you’re going to tackle. However, before you and your team sit back and enjoy a round of celebratory drinks, there is still one final piece of work that remains: the post-mortem meeting.
Post-mortems, which are also referred to as debriefs or retrospectives, are an integral part in the lifecycle of any given project. When used effectively, they can help uncover insights that allow your team to improve internal processes, streamline workflows, and find ways to increase overall client satisfaction on future projects.
Whether you use them regularly or have never run one before, this article will walk through a collection of tips that you can use to ensure your next post-mortem meeting is as effective and impactful as possible.
What is a post-mortem meeting?
The post-mortem meeting is an open forum that is run at the conclusion of a project, where you, your team, and your clients can identify and analyze all aspects related to the project’s lifecycle.
There’s a lot that can be discussed during these meetings. Most think of post-mortems as a time to talk (or complain) exclusively about what went wrong in a given project, but it is also incredibly impactful to discuss what was successful, as well. When running your own post-mortem, you should always try to answer the following questions:
- What went right during the project that we can repeat in the future?
- What went wrong during the project that we should avoid in the future?
- What should we do differently next time?
This evaluative nature of post-mortems is what makes them such a powerful tool for your agency. By allocating time to reflect on the outcomes of your recent projects, you’ll be in a better position to ensure that issues or inefficiencies are not repeated in the future. When done well, post mortems act as a way to stimulate your team to seek out ways to continuously improve their daily work. That alone should be enough reason to convince your agency you need to include them in your workflow.
Every agency or freelancer has their own way of approaching the post-mortem meeting, based on the size of their team, the style of project, and the type of client they work with. The following are suggestions that I’ve found useful for getting the most out of every post-mortem meeting.
1. Run a post-mortem for every project
Many agencies feel that the effort of running a post-mortem isn’t worthwhile when the project is smaller in scope, but this is an entirely misguided perspective. Post-mortems can be valuable and extremely insightful for every project you work on regardless of size.
While issues that crop up in smaller projects might not seem like a big deal in that very instance, they may actually be a symptom of a larger problem, rooted in your agency’s organizational process. And even though the issue may not have impacted your small project in a significant way, it may have a devastating effect if materialized during a large-scale project.
Post-mortems aren’t just for one-off projects with firm end dates either, they can also extremely valuable for long-term, continuous jobs. For ongoing projects like website optimization or marketing campaigns, post mortems should be used to keep your team aware of how a project is progressing over time.
Schedule quarterly ‘health checks’ with your team to debrief on what was accomplished during that time period, including what were milestones met, challenges that arose, and the overall progress that was seen. This will help you identify any blockers that are happening during the project, which you can address then and there, to keep things running smoothly.
You might also like: 3 Organizational Strategies to Prevent Scope Creep
2. Share an agenda before the meeting
Just like any other meeting, you should prepare an agenda for your post-mortem to ensure your discussion doesn’t get sidetracked. Teams sometimes avoid including agendas in their post-mortems, because they overthink the level effort and time needed to create them. But the reality is that even if your agenda is really simple, the impact it can have on the efficiency of your meeting will be well worth the upfront preparation. At the very least, you can create and email your agenda to attendees using a format like this:
3. Prepare by circulating a questionnaire
When sending your agenda to participants, you should also include a pre-meeting questionnaire for everyone to complete before coming to the post-mortem. This helps ensure that everyone comes to the meeting prepared with key takeaways from the project, and the majority of your meeting can be spent discussing those points, rather than trying to identify of them.
Rather than just getting attendees to identify the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ of your project, your questionnaire should prompt them to think about those aspects in relation to specific processes of your workflow. Some examples of topics and questions could include:
- Were communications handled in an efficient and effective manner?
- Were updates/changes transparent to all stakeholders?
- What were the major barriers of communication between the client and agency?
- Were the goals of the project clear to all stakeholders?
- Was the schedule realistic and/or detailed enough?
- What unexpected obstacles arose that affected the ability to meet milestones?
- Was the initial brief detailed enough to facilitate project work?
- What additional information would have facilitated the project workflow?
- What could be done in the future to increase the access to necessary information?
- Did issues/changes in scope arise that affected the delivery of the project?
- Were issues/changes in scope handled in an effective manner?
- What would you do next time to make issue management more effective?
4. Include your clients in the post-mortem
Inviting clients to your post-mortems is a frequently debated topic. Some agencies claim that clients can be so critical during debriefs, that their feedback can actually be harmful to the productivity and happiness of the creative team. On the other hand, some believe that the honesty in client feedback is what makes post-mortems truly valuable for their business.
From my personal experience, I’d have to agree with the latter group. Client inclusion is an absolutely essential part of a post-mortem and without their participation, it’s very likely your team will overlook some crucial inefficiencies in your processes.
Your team will often only see the project from their perspective, and have a biased view on what or who influenced its outcome. Bringing a client into the fold will not only circumvent this myopic view, but by showing interest in their feedback, you’ll demonstrate that you value their business and are willing to take the necessary steps to strengthen the relationship.
Even if you don’t want to work with this particular client again (because we’ve all had one of those before), soliciting their insight on your working relationship can help finetune processes for future projects with other, more desirable, clients.
5. Start by focusing on what went well
In any given situation — a relationship, project, or event — it’s easier for us to focus on what went wrong, rather than what went right. That’s because our brains are hardwired to react more strongly to negative input than positive input. This negativity bias can be crippling in post-mortem sessions — where attendees end up focusing all of their energy on the every single deviation and issue, without even acknowledging what went according to plan.
Given that most people will probably come to your meeting with a list of negatives that far outweighs their positives, I suggest starting your feedback period by identifying those good aspects of the project. Take this time to acknowledge what expectations, objectives, and deadlines were met, while also pinpointing any organizational processes or workflows that went particularly smooth on your end or your client’s.
Beginning with the good not only starts your meeting off on a positive note and encourages participation, but it also helps reassure your team and your client that they’re actually doing good work. Plus, if you just finished working on a project that went exceptionally well from start to finish, wouldn’t you want to know why? I know I would.
6. Don’t play the blame game
It’s human nature to blame each other for mistakes that have been made, while downplaying our successes. But allowing attendees to point fingers at one another in your post-mortem will cause your meeting to quickly derail. These retrospective meetings aren’t about fixating on who did something wrong, but rather to pinpoint what went wrong and why.
Concentrating your energy on uncovering who is responsible for things like missed deadlines, scope increases, or cost overruns creates a toxic environment for your attendees. When people are confronted with criticism about how they handled their responsibilities within the project, they can quickly become defensive, which can result in petty arguments between team members. If this type of situation unfolds in your meeting it will severely hinder the likelihood that other team members will feel comfortable openly sharing their opinions on the process and outcome of the project — and even less likely to admit where they went wrong themselves.
You can try to avoid these harmful situations by establishing the expectations for your meeting at its onset. Let participants know that nothing said during your discussion will affect their role at the agency or be kept in a personal record about their performance. Remind them that these meetings are intended to be learning opportunities, and that even though mistakes may have happened, they won’t be persecuted for those mistakes. I can’t stress the importance of this enough, as you want to ensure the post-mortem results help your team understand why their mistakes happened and what they can do to avoid them in the future.
7. Encourage attendees to dig deeper
Where most teams go wrong with their post-mortems is that they spend the majority of their time discussing the tangible outcomes of the project, rather than digging deeper to uncover the root causes that led to those outcomes.
Many problems that arise in a project can be traced back to a larger inefficiency in your organizational process or structure. In order to truly reduce the likelihood of these problems resurfacing in future projects, you need to identify their source and determine what potential solutions can be employed to maintain, change, or improve those areas of your business.
There are many strategies out there that can help your team dig deeper in meetings, but there is one in particular that I’ve found useful in the past when trying to pull insightful responses from participants. It’s called the five whys technique.
At its core, the five whys technique is quite simple to implement, but don’t let that deceive you. It’s a powerful framework for problem solving that is trusted by major brand teams like Asana, Toyota, Buffer, and (hopefully after this article) your team.
Follow the steps below to use the five whys technique in your post-mortems:
- Identify a problem/success that occurred during your project.
- Ask your participants “why did that problem/success happen?” and record their responses.
- If their answers do not appear to be the root cause of the issue, ask the question again.
- Repeat this process until your team and client feels like the root cause has been identified (this usually will occur within five whys — hence the name).
- Document the root cause, discuss potential solutions, and assign responsibilities among your team.
Even though you may feel like your five-year-old child, repeating the question ‘why’ will help you alter the focus of the meeting, from the symptoms of the problem to its actual cause. This mental shift will guarantee your post-mortems lead to more meaningful discussion, help inspire creative solutions for streamlining your project management, and ultimately ensure the meeting resulted in tangible and valuable takeaways for your team. Once the root cause of a problem has been identified, you should brainstorm a few potential strategies for improving/avoiding those problems.
8. Document the post-mortem
Every post-mortem should have a designated note-taker, whose responsibility will be to document the key points from your meeting, and share them with participants after its conclusion. This individual isn’t expected to capture every word minute-by-minute, but rather just the essence of what was discussed including:
- All project issues
- All project wins
- Any next steps/action items
Meeting notes are a formal record of your meeting and a resource for keeping all stakeholders informed, even if they were unable to attend the post-mortem in person. They can also act as a reference point for your team, down the line, when you begin implementing next steps in your internal and client-facing processes.
Finally, these notes will help keep both your team and clients accountable for what was said during the post-mortem. This ensures that tasks assigned to individuals are completed, timelines for delivery are met, and changes promised actually happen, rather than falling to the sideline. Without this document, it’s a lot easier for you to run your post-mortem, without actually following up and implementing next steps to improve your process.
9. Transform meeting insights into action
This is the single most important piece of advice I’d offer anyone looking to improve the effectiveness of their post-mortems. Too often teams put the effort into hosting these meetings, only to never act upon the insight and feedback that was shared. This lack of action entirely defeats the purpose of hosting a post-mortem in the first place, which we’ve seen is to identify project outcomes with the goal of improving project workflow.
To combat this, you should set some time aside immediately following your meeting to review your notes and convert your key takeaways into an actionable plan. Start by looking over your notes from the debrief and try to identify commonalities or themes between the root causes.
Did the client consistently mention communication as a barrier to the project? Were your developers held back over and over by changes in scope? Did you all just have too much on your plates at once? Once you’ve pinpointed some areas of improvement, come up with one to three procedural changes you could make to help avoid the same roadblocks in the future.
If you’re not sure where to start, try answering the following three questions for all areas where you believe your team can improve its process:
1. What do we absolutely need to do?
This is where you identify the problem and the impact it has on your projects. For example, “Our team needs to improve client communication so milestones and key updates are available to all stakeholders in a timely manner.”
2. What can we do about it now?
List some potential strategies you can employ within the next one to three months. For example, “Over the next one to three months, our client services team will begin to pre-schedule 15 minute check-in calls with the client that occur every week.”
3. What should we do about it soon?
List some potential strategies you can employ within the next three to six months. For example, “In six months time, our entire client service team will begin using the project collaboration software Basecamp to streamline all project updates with external stakeholders.”
Once you’ve compiled the details of your action plan, be sure to share it with the larger group to solicit their feedback and, ultimately, buy-in.
Improve your client relationships with post-mortems
When done right, the post-mortem can be extremely beneficial for improving the client relationships and procedural operations of your agency or freelance business. Even if you only implement a few of the tactics outlined above, you should begin to see post-mortems become one of your most valuable tools as a creative consultancy.
What are your strategies for running effective post-mortem meetings? Let us know by leaving a comment below.