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How to conduct a project post-mortem

Written 04 April, 2019, 4 minutes to read

Anyone who’s ever worked on a project knows things rarely go entirely to plan. Even the most successful projects have room for improvement – whether that’s streamlining workflows or refining internal processes. But a good project post-mortem – also called debriefs or retrospectives – can reveal what went wrong (and right!), so you can avoid making the same mistakes in the future and lead more effective projects. Here’s everything you need to know about how to conduct a project post-mortem.

Why you need a project post-mortem

Before getting into best practice, it’s important to be aware of why exactly you need to hold a project post-mortem meeting in the first place. People love to feel everything’s done and dusted as soon as a project wraps up – but this isn’t the case! Before even calling your project review, everyone needs to understand why you’re doing it. The biggest benefits include:

  • Improved productivity: You’ll discover new, improved ways to tackle tasks and projects.
  • Boosted morale: Discussing issues and celebrating achievements brings people together. It also results in positive momentum for upcoming projects.
  • Enhanced collaboration: By sharing different perspectives and opinions, team members will learn to be more compassionate and inclusive.
  • Give closure: Project post-mortems act as the final step in closing a project.
  • Internal insight: Sharing learnings from your post-mortem with the rest of the company can lead to better practices.
  • Correcting mistakes: You’ll examine what went wrong and improve things for next time.

Before the project post-mortem

A post-mortem should swiftly follow project close, when everything’s still fresh in your team’s mind. Ideally the meeting should be scheduled in the initial project plan – that way everyone knows it’s coming and reflection is encouraged throughout the whole process. Then, you should:

Appoint a moderator

Choose a member of your team to facilitate the review – someone who played a part in the project but isn’t so invested they can’t be unbiased. Their role is to keep the post-mortem on track – to help settle any disagreements, provide structure and keep discussion constructive.

Send out an agenda

The last thing you want is people dreading the post-mortem, or thinking it exists only to lay the blame at someone’s feet. Be clear that the meeting is simply an opportunity to give candid feedback – no strings attached – and establish the agenda so people have time to structure their thoughts.

Encourage feedback before the project post-mortem

To avoid hearing only loud silence in response to your questions, get your team thinking about things before the meeting has kicked off. Maybe set a list of areas people should pay attention to during the project, to encourage active reflection.

Take notes

Your post-mortem insights mean very little if you don’t actually write them down for future reference. Appoint a note taker or use an app to automate minute taking so everyone can focus on the discussion at hand. Either way, you should come out of the meeting with a clear record of reflections, ideas and actions.

During the project post-mortem

Have the agenda to hand. It’s easy to go off on a tangent. To keep things focused and on track, make sure the agenda is in front of you, or on a screen – somewhere prominent. Make sure you have enough time to cover each point!

Start with a friendly check-in

This is especially important if there were problems during the project and tensions are running high. Try to assess how people are feeling: is confidence low, or do people seem upbeat? If you can feel tension in the room, set the tone of the meeting you want others to follow by leading with empathy.

Begin high-level

Unlike other meetings, project post-mortems aren’t about the destination – they’re about the journey. Begin by recapping top-level project performance – it’s the best way to get people warmed up. Take a look at the time you took on each project phase, how much budget you spent and what you achieved against your project KPIs (project time tracking can help).

Get into the specifics

Then it’s time to start seriously analyzing the project ups and downs. To kick off feedback, start positive: “which parts of the project worked best?” and “which parts did you find most enjoyable?”. Then you can move onto what didn’t go so well, but remember to stress the importance of this part. Being honest about what didn’t work is essential to actually improving – “negatives”, as such, are really huge opportunities to grow.

Get the ball rolling by starting with what you felt was problematic. Bear in mind that everything you say should be used to help inform future projects. Some things to consider are:

  • whether there were delays, surprises or setbacks
  • whether people felt they were adequately supported, or overworked
  • whether client communication was managed effectively
  • whether the instructions and project scope was clear enough
  • what things could be improved next time; and

After the project post-mortem

The most important thing? Actually use the feedback you receive in the post-mortem! Introduce changes and track future project performance so you can actually assess their impact. Otherwise the whole thing will just be yet another wasted meeting people didn’t need to be at. And there are enough of those already…

Want to get better at estimating project budgets and timeframes? Check out this guide.

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