How to make an IT post-mortem useful

What should you do in a post-mortem? Consider 8 expert tips to make after-action reviews more gain than pain and ensure a beneficial process
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IT project post-mortems may not make anyone’s top ten list of favorite things to do on a Friday morning. “One of the goals of a post-mortem is to shine a light on those areas that are ripe for improvement,” says Mark Broome, chief data officer at the Project Management Institute (PMI). “The downside of shining a light on problem areas is the risk of these results being weaponized to the detriment of team members of organization functions.”

In fact, some IT groups may avoid them altogether. “In my work with organizations globally, unfortunately, many don’t perform post-mortems at all,” says Susanne Madsen, project leadership coach and author of The Power of Project Leadership. “The reason they’re not done? Lack of time. People are too focused on the next project they need to deliver to properly conclude on the old one. [It’s a] shame and a missed opportunity.”

[ Read also: What is an IT project post-mortem? ]

What should I do in a post-mortem?

Post-mortems identify missteps to avoid in the future and let team members and stakeholders be heard in a constructive way.

When operationalized correctly, however, post-mortems can actually save time and improve morale by uncovering best practices that improve productivity, identifying missteps to avoid in the future, and giving team members and stakeholders an opportunity to be heard in a constructive way. Here are some tips for making these after-action reviews more gain than pain and ensure that the process is useful for the IT organization.

1. Adapt the approach to the project

The timing of and approach to post-mortems depends on the characteristics of the project. For traditional projects, a single post-mortem may work. Agile post-mortems (called retrospectives) tend to occur between sprints. “It is important to understand the characteristics of the project to determine what type, frequency, and scope of post-mortem is most appropriate for the project,” Broome says.

[ If you’re following the agile methodology, you’re learning and iterating daily. Read also: Agile project management, explained and Traditional IT postmortems are dead in the agile age.]

“The post-mortems can be a five-minute discussion for smaller and minimally complex projects, or more structured and formal for complex initiatives, where much needs to be shared across the organization and with external partners.”

2. Consider more frequent reviews

Madsen advocates reviewing the project throughout rather than waiting to do one big after-action session at the end. “What would be more effective is to adopt one of the agile methods of reflecting, learning, and course-correcting as the project is being implemented,” Madsen says.

“Even if you’re not running an agile project, you can still carry out a retrospective after each major milestone.”

“Why not review the project after each phase or iteration so that the team can learn the lessons, identify actions, adapt, and improve straightaway? Even if you’re not running an agile project, you can still carry out a retrospective after each major milestone.”

3. Invite more people to the table

Try to include everyone who had a stake in the project outcome, including the core team, impacted departments, and even customers. “We recently had a CRM post-mortem where we invited everyone touched by the program to participate – from IT to marketing, analytics to even the customer themselves. We also brought in executives at the company to troubleshoot roadblocks that might be too large for the core team to handle on their own,” says PMI’s Broome. “It is important to have all necessary representation to get a 360-degree view of the project and identify any challenges, successes, and opportunities for future project work.”

4. Involve the disgruntled

“What can make post-mortems uncomfortable is also what can make them so valuable.”

“[Postmortems] require confronting issues head-on. What can make them uncomfortable is also what can make them so valuable,” says Ryan Scott, chief technology officer, product and integrations at DNA Behavior International. That’s why including the most unhappy participants is necessary. The key is to treat it as a learning experience. “It’s important not to blame each other for what didn’t go well, but that we acknowledge our shortcomings and take actions to make sure it goes better next time,” Madsen says.

5. Consider bringing in a third party to moderate

Scott brings in someone outside his organization to lead the process. “The moderator is always someone from a different department and typically would not have any previous knowledge of the event,” he says. “This person can probe and get to the bottom of issues from the perspective of increasing their own understanding. This helps avoid anyone feeling upset or interrogated.”

6. Don’t wing it

“Post-mortems need to be structured. If there is no direction, [they] can wander or drag,” Broome says. “Make sure people understand why they are there and what their role is within the conversation. From there, discuss the goals of the project, call out accomplishments, challenges and opportunities, and what communication needs to occur so you get the most out of the process.”

7. Be clear about next steps

“You need to have a culture that acts on post-mortem learnings. If post-mortems are used to place fault and blame rather than learn and improve, the post-mortem process will not be useful,” Broome says. Scott has the moderator document the discussion and distribute recommendations to the team, inviting additional input at that time. “This also opens the opportunity for shy team members to raise issues in private if they are harboring any grudges,” says Scott.

8. Follow through

Leverage the results of the after-action review to drive change. “The purpose of a post-mortem is to help drive change to improve and to share what new practices worked and should be replicated in the future,” Broome says. “If nothing changes, your learnings are wasted.”

[ Culture change is the hardest part of transformation. Get the eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.