What Does Postmortem Mean?
In business terms, a postmortem is a process for discussing and documenting a project’s effectiveness so you can improve operations and mitigate future risks. The process of conducting a postmortem also produces a document that recaps all of a project's events and findings. This document is known as a postmortem report.
Why Conduct a Postmortem?
When you don’t conduct a postmortem, it’s too easy to move onto the next project straight away. In doing so, you miss the opportunity to evaluate the successes and failures of a project and what changes should be made for next time.
Throughout a postmortem, a team can dissect the details and outcomes of a project, coming away with actionable takeaways. This process prevents stagnation.
When you conduct a postmortem, you discover what went well and what you can improve on, allowing you to continuously optimize internal marketing mechanisms.
Certain steps are essential for getting the most out of a postmortem. Let’s go over these key steps that, once executed, produce a comprehensive postmortem report.
Steps for Writing an Extensive Postmortem Report
Before the Postmortem Meeting
Schedule Immediately After Project Concludes
The first step to writing a successful postmortem report is to automatically schedule postmortems meetings after all major projects. You should still run a postmortem for smaller projects, but they may not require an in-person meeting. Your team will be the best judge of which projects require a meeting.
If your company utilizes a project management service (which it should), this is simple to do. Make sure to schedule the meeting for no more than a week after a project concludes. The sooner the better, as the information will be fresh in everyone's mind.
Have Each Team Member Fill Out a Pre-meeting Agenda
Have every team member who worked on the project fill out a questionnaire, preferably through Google Docs. This allows everyone to provide their answers in one place, reviewing what others are saying at the same time. By the time of the meeting, all team members should have already reviewed everyone else’s notes. This frees up the meeting for making decisions and saves time. If your meetings are running longer than an hour, you should do more pre-meeting prep.
Create an Agenda
As with all meetings, you should have an agenda you stick to for your postmortem. This will help ensure your discussions don’t get sidetracked. In general, your agenda should briefly summarize the project and its results, then spend the majority of the time discussing why everyone believes it went the way it did. We’ll cover how to manage this discussion in the following sections.
During the Postmortem Meeting
Have Someone Act as Moderator
Typically, companies have an account manager or project manager who takes on this role. If you’re a smaller company, you can simply appoint whoever makes the most sense to act as a facilitator. You should also have someone else act as a notetaker. Having detailed notes makes writing the postmortem report much easier. Without an in-depth postmortem report, much of what you learned throughout the process will be lost over time. Without thorough notes, your postmortem report will only be surface-level.
Answer Key Postmortem Questions
By following your agenda, you should always come away from your postmortem meeting with answers to key questions such as:
- What went right during the project that we should repeat next time?
- What went wrong that we should avoid next time?
- What didn’t we do this time that we should add to our agenda?
Answering these questions helps to make your postmortems incrementally improve every time.
Hear From Every Voice
Your moderator will help make sure that one person doesn’t dominate the conversation, but there will always be some people who speak more than others during any meeting. This is okay.
However, if you never hear from certain team members on key talking points, you increase your chances of repeating the same mistakes. Encourage an open conversation where no one is ridiculed and interrupting is discouraged.
After the Postmortem Meeting
Write the Postmortem Report Using Meeting Notes
The most important part about running a successful postmortem is to meticulously document everything you do. You need to include as much context as possible so that someone unfamiliar with the project can look at the postmortem a year later and understand it. Your postmortem report is where this lives. This report should include:
- Dates the project was live
- Why the project was launched
- What was launched (including screenshots and data on what was changed)
- The results of the project (including more metrics that were tracked)
- Feedback from all team members
- Why you ended up with the results you did
- What the next action steps are
- What you’re going to do differently next time
Follow Through on Actionable Takeaways
A final, critical step after the postmortem meeting is to assign each item to the one person best suited for carrying it out. This ensures every actionable takeaway is actually acted on. Diffusion of responsibility is a well-documented sociopsychological phenomenon. If something is assigned to everyone, it’s acted on by no one.
The Bottom Line on Postmortems
Postmortems aren’t as time-consuming and bothersome as you may think. If you’ve never run a postmortem before, the process might have a few kinks the first few times. That’s okay though because it will get easier each time, and the small amount of added effort will make your projects run smoother.
Postmortems ensure that your company runs as efficiently as possible and is always improving. They find wins to take away from projects that seem like failures and find ways to improve on projects that already appeared to be fully optimized.
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