Project Management

15 minute read

The Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Project Post-Mortem That Doesn't Waste Time

Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

Here’s how to check in with your team after every major project to keep the needle moving in the right direction.

If you’ve never heard of a project post-mortem before, you’re probably slightly grossed out, but super curious.

Isn’t a post-mortem what happens when someone passes away?

Technically yes, but that’s not exactly what we’re talking about today.

See, like an actual post-mortem where a coroner tries to determine a cause of death by assessing how someone spent their life, a project post-mortem digs deep to find out what went right and wrong with your projects.

Post-mortem meetings (PMM) may be the key to unlocking a boatload of productivity while also keeping morale high on your team.

Once you know what went wrong, you’ll never make the same mistakes with your future projects.

Here’s what we’ll be tackling today as we cover all things project post-mortem:

  • Why these meetings are so worth your time (they are!)
  • How to conduct a PMM so you don’t waste time
  • A sample meeting itinerary
  • Questions to prompt feedback
  • All the steps you need to follow before, during, and after your PMM

Before we boost your team’s success rate, let’s start with the basics.

What is a project post-mortem and why should you even bother with one?

When you compare an autopsy with a project post-mortem, the picture is very similar, although it has a slight twist.

Instead of trying to figure out what went wrong at the very end, you’ll be trying to uncover how your project went from start to finish.

Dissecting certain choices and diving deeper after a project wraps up will help you discover crucial details to help your team in the future.

That’s the main reason why project post-mortems should be a top priority no matter what business you’re in.

By analyzing and learning from what worked and what didn’t, you’ll prevent your team from repeating the same mistakes on future projects.

Thanks to this all-important meeting, you’ll eventually create reusable systems for aspects of the project that went well. That alone will save you countless hours of work (and headaches) down the line.

Post-mortems should become part of your routine process for every project your team takes on – both large and small.

Your team will learn that these meetings are all about improvement; they’re not only for when things go wrong.

To streamline this process so it actually becomes part of every project, you’ll need to get in the habit of holding post-mortem meetings shortly after your project's end.

This keeps each project fresh in everyone’s mind and serves as a good way to close the project out.

Take this a step further and hold post-mortem meetings when you reach a key milestone in your projects too. This extra meeting ensures that your projects run smoothly from start to finish. They also help you address minor issues before they snowball into massive problems.

Before you run off and create yet another Death by Meeting, it’s important to understand the basics of what to do and what not to do when conducting a post-mortem meeting.

Follow these steps and you’ll all but guarantee your meeting is productive and not another waste of everyone’s time.

How to make sure your post-mortem doesn’t waste time

To keep your post-mortem meeting a success, here’s what you need to do before, during, and after you hold one.

Before your post-mortem meeting even begins

You’ll want to map out a gameplan, lay down some ground rules, assign a few key roles, and get your team thinking early about the feedback they want to share well before your post-mortem meeting starts.

Setting the right tone for your post-mortem meeting means you’ll need to:

1. Assign a moderator

Your moderator is not your referee – let’s be clear on this. The moderator is there to keep your meeting organized and moving in the right direction.

If arguments or disputes arise, they’ll be able to guide everyone back on track.

So before you embark on a post-mortem meeting, your first step is choosing someone who’d do well in the moderator role. Your moderator should be someone who was involved in the project but will still be able to remain neutral.

This person will also handle the next step (among other important responsibilities).

2. Send out an itinerary so everyone knows what to expect

An itinerary may seem like a small, unimportant step, but this ultimately sets the agenda for your post-mortem meeting so it’s not a step to take lightly.

The purpose here is to let your team know what’s going to happen during your post-mortem meeting so they stop thinking the worst.

Give them peace of mind so they know you’re not looking for a blame game or bash fest.

Let your team know the post-mortem meeting is a chance to provide honest feedback without the worry or fear of losing their job. Reassure them that no one will be fired or impacted negatively by a PMM.

While you can certainly hashtag this point forever, the best way to show you mean business is by giving everyone the actual talking points of your meeting.

Here’s a solid itinerary for your post-mortem meetings you can copy:

  1. Create the space for feedback (First 5 mins of your meeting). This is where you’ll lay out the purpose of your PMM and your ground rules (more on this next).
  2. Check in with the team (5-7 minute mark). Gauge the overall mood before you start the meeting. We’ll get to our fave tips for this later in this guide.
  3. Spend 5 mins recapping the project (7-17 minute mark). Your team should know how you measure successes and how they did. The more transparent you are with metrics, the better. We’ll elaborate on this shortly.
  4. Highlight the wins (17-22 minute mark). It’s essential to celebrate what your team accomplished and what went right with the project before you start discussing the negatives.
  5. Welcome any and all feedback (22-42 minute mark). Use the answers from the questions you sent over before the meeting as a starting point. This should be enough of an icebreaker to get your team chirping feedback in your ear.
  6. End on a good note (42-45 minute mark). Your team should feel energized and inspired after your meeting – not demoralized and unmotivated. If you follow the tips in this guide, your team will thrive instead of cry on the inside.

Now that you put it all out there, this transparency will create a more relaxed meeting where everyone knows what to expect.

Your team won’t fear your project post-mortems when they have an itinerary. And they won’t stress about losing their jobs if they speak up (as it’s totally encouraged!).

Another message you’ll want to send out beforehand: your PMM’s ground rules.

3. Send over a list of basic “rules” with your itinerary

Though you’re dealing with adults and the notion of setting rules may seem juvenile, it’s a necessary step to a productive project post-mortem.

Your first rule should emphasize how your PMMs are not a place for criticizing team members or pointing fingers.

Instead of naming specific employees, the focus should be on the specific parts of the process that didn’t work well (and those that did).

Passive aggressive and argumentative behavior should be checked at the door, so include that in your list of rules too.

You know what else you’ll want to explicitly mention isn’t invited to the PMM?

Laptops, tablets, phones, hoverboards, and any other distracting devices.

There’s nothing worse than someone finally opening up with feedback only to lose their train of thought by a notification from someone else’s phone.

Or even worse, if everyone’s buried in their devices, no one will feel compelled to offer their opinions. They’ll think no one’s paying attention and your meeting will go nowhere.

The only person who needs a device in the room is the notetaker (you’ll meet them soon).

Speaking of opinions, you’ll want to stir up well-thought-out feedback from your team. That means you’ll need to make it clear that vague feedback won’t help anyone.

Ask for specifics early and you’ll be amazed by what your team returns when they have time to think about what happened. Not many people can pull out actionable feedback on the spot, after all.

4. Encourage feedback before the meeting

We’ve all been in meetings where feedback and questions are prompted at the end and only the sound of the AC running in the background responds.

To avoid this nightmare, ask for feedback using a free tool like Google Forms before your meeting begins. Just create a list of questions or prompts and your team will fill it in with their answers.

You can even keep this step anonymous to get the feedback your team really needs.

Sending questions will prompt people to respond. If you just ask people to provide feedback without giving them some helpful questions or prompts, you may get feedback that’s all over the place.

So before you send out your list of questions, mention this step in person so your team understands the goal here. They should feel comfortable knowing their opinions matter and relax because it’s not a blame-game.

To help you get started, here’s a list of questions to consider sending your team. Feel free to tweak them as necessary:

  1. Overall, how do you feel this project went?
  2. What aspects of the project do you think worked well?
  3. Is there any aspect, in particular, you enjoyed during this project?
  4. Is there one part of this project you feel the most proud of?
  5. Do you think we reached our goal with this project?
  6. Do you feel like this project was a “win”?
  7. Did you experience any bottlenecks or issues during this project? If yes, please explain.
  8. How do you think we can improve our process for next time?
  9. Do you feel you had enough support to handle this project?
  10. What could your team leaders do better next time? (without mentioning names)

This should get your team’s brains working so they’re bursting with comments during your project post-mortem. And these types of discussions always lead to the biggest breakthroughs.

Your final step to tackle before you hold your actual post-mortem meeting is to assign a notetaker.

5. Assign a notetaker

As the name suggests, this person’s sole purpose is to jot down everyone’s suggestions – both the awesome and the not-so-implementable.

Your notetaker should have uh-mazing typing skills to do this with ease, speed, and accuracy. The quickest texting fingers on your team are usually a dead ringer for this role.

By assigning one person to this job, you’ll keep all your meeting notes organized in one central location. You’ll also prevent the need for everyone to bring in a laptop or classic spiral to take notes themselves.

Now everyone will be paying attention during the meeting instead of furiously scribbling down quotes and ideas.

All that work should be done before your post-mortem meeting. Let’s discuss what to do during the PMM itself.

Follow these tips during your post-mortem meetings

Even if you’ve run dozens of meetings before, you’ll want to heed these specific tips since a post-mortem meeting isn’t exactly the same.

After you’ve held enough PMMs, this routine will become second nature:

1. Keep the agenda prominent

Remember that handy itinerary you took the time to create before your meeting?

To keep your PMM on the rails, whip that bad boy out and place it in an esteemed seat of honor throughout your meeting.

Ok, not really. But your agenda should be prominently placed for everyone to see.

Anytime your meeting drifts off, you can quickly reel it in and get back on track.

Here’s a sample for you to check out and put into action yourself:

  1. Introduce the meeting's purpose and rules (First 5 mins of your meeting)
  2. Team check-in (5-7 minute mark)
  3. 5 min recap (7-12 minute mark)
  4. It's time to celebrate the wins (12-22 minute mark)
  5. Open forum/feedback (22-42 minute mark)
  6. Let's end on a good note (45-45 minute mark)

Total meeting time: 45 minutes

Once your agenda is up for all to peep, you’re ready to do a short check-in with the team.

2. Start with a quick check-in

Tensions may be running high during certain post-mortem meetings, especially if the project ran into a few hiccups or didn’t go so well.

A good way to break the ice is checking in with your team to see how everyone’s feeling.

How’s the morale on your team? Are they excited today or are they coming off an exhausting project no one wants to talk about yet?

Start with a quick check-in personally before asking how everyone’s feeling with the project overall.

If the mood is crummy, consider a technique Tony Robbins is a huge fan of: Getting everyone up and moving.

This can be as easy as a few jumping jacks, power poses, arm raises where people clap above their head while still sitting down, and even a couple of fist pumps, if that’s your team’s thing.

The whole point is to break the tension in the room. As silly as it seems, moving together will help you do just that.

Now if your team is feeling good about the project, keep that energy moving as you work your way into the next step.

3. Go over the project highlights

Most meetings only focus on the end results.

But by providing a recap of all the positives, you’ll get your team warmed up and prepared for the more serious discussions to come.

That’s what makes it the perfect way to transition from jumping around to getting to the heart of the meeting – the feedback portion.

Now’s the time to go over the exact data you’re using to measure and track the project’s performance. It’s also a good idea to explain why you’re tracking these specific metrics and what they mean for your projects.

This transparency unifies the team. Everyone understands how their hard work contributes to moving the needle.

Maintain this same level of transparency as you segue into the feedback part of the meeting.

4. Going beyond the surface

Once you’ve wrapped up your recap, both you and your team will be ready to analyze the details of what went wrong and what went right with the project.

It’s during this time that you’ll dive beyond the superficial level (your end results) and get into the specifics. These are what’s going to help your team grow and improve.

So how do you start the feedback train?

A common mistake is using the sandwich technique, where you give feedback in a certain order: good, bad, good.

The idea here is that by sandwiching the negative feedback between a series of good comments, the bad ones won’t seem so harsh.

Unfortunately, research shows this doesn’t work and you’re better off being transparent from the get-go.

To do this and keep things positive, start out with what went right.

Ask your team questions like:

  1. What do you think contributed to the success of this project?
  2. What components of the project ran smoothly?
  3. What parts of the project did you enjoy the most?
  4. If client-facing, how do you think the client felt this project went? Did we meet or exceed their expectations?

Now before you discuss what went wrong with the project, it’s mission critical to reiterate the rules so everyone feels comfortable speaking up:

  • No blaming. The focus should be on which parts of the process need fixing, not the individuals involved.
  • Give specific, actionable feedback instead of vague ideas.
  • Only one speaker at a time. No one is going to yell over, interrupt, or disregard anyone speaking.
  • Arguing won’t be tolerated. If an issue sparks a debate, the moderator will step in and keep the discussion on track.

Consider starting out with the feedback you received from the team, before letting everyone know what you feel went wrong with the project.

By doing this, you’ll open the floor to the team and grab their input before they have a chance to simply repeat what you said.

Once you’ve gone over their feedback, you can then move into what you and possibly upper management have to say about the project.

Again, this needs to be considered in the context of how this will help future projects succeed. Some possible questions to ask include:

  1. Were there any bottlenecks or issues that need to be addressed?
  2. How do you think we can improve the flow for next time?
  3. Do you feel the team had enough support or the right tools to handle this project?
  4. Do you feel stretched too thin in any areas?
  5. What could your team leaders do better next time? (without mentioning names)
  6. Did your team leaders provide you with everything you needed to successfully complete this project?

By this point, your team will probably have enough of all the post-mortem talk so it’s a smart idea to wrap it up.

If your meeting drags on and drains your team, they’ll feel beaten down and exhausted.

You want your team to feel energized after your post-mortem meeting! You want them to feel so confident about their direction that they can’t wait to tackle your next project.

So keep your PMMs short and sweet; get to the point and then get out.

Don’t think you’re off the hook once you close the case on your post-mortem meeting. As soon as your PMM ends, you’ll need to handle one more step.

Do this after your post-mortem meeting is complete

Since you’ve already assigned a notetaker, this next step should be a breeze.

Your notetaker should organize everything that was mentioned in the meeting and highlight only the key takeaways – both what went wrong and right.

If there are any open-ended tasks left, add initials or someone’s first name and a deadline of when this will be completed next to those tasks. This way everyone knows what they’re responsible for moving forward.

And if you’ve decided to create new systems, this should also be spelled out in the meeting recap. These new systems must be created before the next project starts so they’re automatically part of your new routine process.

This also ensures that you’ll be able to use and review these new processes before your next post-mortem meeting.

Create new systems, put them to work, and repeat

If you don’t actually use the feedback you receive during your project post-mortem meetings, they’ll quickly become a waste of everyone’s time.

That’s why none of this matters unless you create and use the new systems for your future projects. Then you’ll be able to see if/how they improved your projects and what that means for your team’s profitability.

Remind your team to track areas of your process that need tweaking in real time and be sure to go over those in your next post-mortem meeting.

After a few repetitions of this, your meeting times will become shorter and your productivity and team morale will only continue to improve!

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Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

Crafting fluff-free content is Devan’s jam. When she’s not writing for GoSkills, you’ll find her outside reading, soaking up the sun, or hiking her next adventure.

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