Thinking back to my first time seeing the meeting subject title ‘Post Mortem for (insert project name that went horribly awry)’ pop up in my Inbox …I remember hitting ‘Accept’ somewhat reluctantly. My mind quickly concocted a visual of a mock funeral for said project, the people there didn’t really like the project, but they attended anyway…out of respect. Afterward they talked about a few good qualities, but mostly complained about it before going back to business as usual.
Yes, a little strange maybe, but that odd visual story in my head proved to be accurate for most Post-Mortem meetings attended in the years that followed. Different agencies, different projects, but they all usually played out in the same way. Typically, one of these meetings would be scheduled only after a project that was riddled with issues, blown budgets & missed deadlines. As for projects that went tremendously well? No need for a Post-Mortem, we’re awesome, go team!
Changing the Perception
Unfortunately, these after-the-fact meetings usually have a negative connotation attached to them. People attend with their backs up, ready to defend their role on the project, air grievances, and place blame elsewhere. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way. When it comes down to it, team members want the projects they take part in to be successful. Changing the perception of how a Post-Mortem is perceived is crucial to future success on projects with that specific client, and your company’s process as a whole. Enacting this change is done by focusing on the holistic view of how your company evolves its process over time, not just what they should have done in hindsight on that one project.
Below are the tenants that should always be top of mind for anyone planning on conducting a Post-Mortem successfully. If you stay true to these items, your team will start to view these meetings as a beneficial aspect of the project and you will see the improvements in future endeavors.
1) Keep the meeting structure simple
There are quite a few meeting outlines that exist out there, but they all really break down into five main components. At Ai, the following structure for Post-Mortem meetings has proven very successful.
• What has been working?
• What has not been working?
• What was painful but necessary?
• What did you learn about working with this particular client?
• Any recommendations that we should implement into future processes?
This breakdown requires the team to begin with positive aspects of the project, and end with forward-thinking process improvement ideas to help set an optimistic tone and shift the perception away from the negative. It’s tempting to gloss over everything but that pesky second bullet, but it is so important to make sure all aspects – good and bad – are discussed.
2) Ensure the attendees are prepared ahead of time
By nature, Project & Account Managers are organized. Keeping the client happy, the projects successful, and the team working efficiently is par for the course. This includes getting your Post-Mortem meeting outline in order. But these goals are not always the main focus of the team members executing the deliverables. They are focused on their daily tasks at hand, whether it involves getting a Strategy Recommendation out the door, or the third revision of creative done in time to hand off to Technology. Basically, people are busy and this could fall low on their list of things to get done.
To sidestep any probable delay in receiving feedback, send out a list of questions to the staff at least one week before the meeting. Put a reminder on their calendar, asking them to send responses by a specific date. This forces team members to really think about the answers. If you ask people to physically type out their feedback, you will find the content will be more pointed & specific. People will instinctively recognize in their bulleted list what is legitimate, and what is just whiny.
3) Time It!
The recommended time for a Post-Mortem is no longer than 1.5 hours. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially if there are too many missteps to count. The organizer can sidestep this by identifying overlapping problem areas received in the initial feedback and integrating them into one focus point. Each bullet point has a specified time allotted and, once you reach the maximum time for that item, assess whether it is necessary to schedule a follow-up meeting.
4) Introduce the Mini-Mortem
A few months ago, a PM was trying to see what she could do to correct a list of growing issues on a hectic project…then a light bulb went off. Why wait until after a project has come to an end to course correct issues and highlight achievements? By placing a ‘Mini-Mortem’ at the halfway point of the project, the team as a whole was able to identify problem areas and pain points before the project is over. By providing them a means to voice these concerns and call out things they feel are working well, it allows the Account Managers ample time to refocus efforts where needed. Again, it’s important not to ignore the positive aspects, this is a great time to leverage what has been working well and build upon it.
5) Apply Lessons Learned To the Next Project
When Post-Mortem meetings occur after a project, often times whatever learnings are captured tend to be quickly forgotten. The information shared between coworkers during these meetings is on some level remembered, and corrections of previous issues happen organically, but this isn’t enough. At some point people will roll off and new members will transition onto a piece of client business. If tangible steps aren’t taken to capture the valuable information shared during a Post-Mortem, the ever important ‘Next Steps’ will never be implemented. When mistakes aren’t corrected, these meetings tend to be viewed as a time-suck. Why bother meeting if management isn’t going to fix it the next time around?
When a new piece of work gets underway, make sure there is time allotted to review the previous Post-Mortem notes along with the Next Steps from that meeting. Below is an example of one item that showed up on the whiteboard of a Post-Mortem, and it’s Next Step:
“ Having multiple work-in-progress meetings scheduled with the client each week was great in that we got buy in on our ideas throughout the process, but towards the end of the project we needed less meetings and more time to focus.”
PM to check in with the creative team each Monday, at this time we will assess what WIP’s are needed that week. We will also shift the 9:00am scheduled time to 5:30pm to allow creative to be ready.
A Happier Team
By implementing the steps above, you will begin to shift the overall attitude around how the Post-Mortem meeting is perceived by your coworkers. So start changing the perception, assign next steps and hold the team accountable. Next time a new piece of work rolls around, reserve a slot of time to refer back to the items that came up in the last Post-Mortem. Make sure to highlight the good and bad, although correcting mistakes is crucial…touching upon what the team excelled at will boost morale and remind everyone that ‘it wasn’t all bad’.
And lastly…can we please change the name of this meeting?